Enhancing Travel in Our National Parks: Transportation Scholarship Program

As the population of the United States continues to increase, so does the transportation problem in our national parks. In the past three decades, park visits have jumped more than 83 percent; almost all of these additional visitors have traveled to and through the park in private vehicles. Roads and parking facilities that were once adequate are now overwhelmed, especially during the peak travel season.

Congestion that occurs both degrades visitor experience and endangers the natural and cultural resources provided by the National Park Service (NPS) for protection. The results are increasingly burdening agencies that are already constrained by small budgets and overworked staff.

In 2001, in an effort to help NPS find innovative solutions to this problem, the National Park Foundation (NPF), the Ford Company Company Fund, and the Eno Transportation Foundation worked with NPS to establish the National Park Transportation Scholarship Program. Today the program continues under the guidance of the National Parks Foundation, National Parks Service, Federal Highway Administration, Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks and Technical Assistance Centers, and the Eno Transportation Foundation.

The Transportation Scholarship Program provides transportation professionals who help develop transportation systems to help parks reduce traffic, congestion and pollution while enhancing the park visitor’s experience. The Scholarship Program pairs transportation professionals and graduate students with NPS staff who seek expert assistance with projects involving transportation planning and analysis, public outreach, intergovernmental coordination, environmental impact assessment, and other transportation related tasks. Tasks generally begin in the early summer and last for six or twelve months.

The Transportation Scholarship Program provides Transportation Services with much-needed transportation expertise with a fraction of the cost of hiring consultants or bringing full-time staff. Parks benefit significantly from having a Bachelor of Transportation located on site compared to using off-site assistance, and Parks beneficiaries by serving as a single point of contact on transportation issues for consultants, contractors, and local communities. Scholars also bring a new perspective to Park Services, while taking valuable personal and professional experience.

Jacqueline Lowey, Deputy Chief of Staff at the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) from 1996 to 1997, and Deputy Director of the NPS from 1997-2001, compiled the ideas for the Transportation Scholarship Program. “I think transportation is really important to protect park resources,” Lowey said. “Transportation is the nexus of how you preserve the park while allowing visitors to experience the extraordinary natural and historical riches of the park now and in the future.”

To be eligible for consideration, the park must have special transportation related projects that are ready to begin or already in progress. A committee consisting of representatives from the NPS, NPF and Eno Foundation reviews park applications that meet these basic requirements; the final park choice is made by the NPF Board of Directors.

Parks with projects that are linked to long-term transportation plans that are well developed and involve innovative approaches to address park transportation issues are given priority. Examples of such innovative approaches include projects that combine alternative transportation systems, community involvement, sustainable transportation, master transportation planning, multi-capital access, and non-motorized transportation. The undergraduate selection process is managed by the Eno Foundation, which gathers selection panels with representatives from the NPS, the USDOT-Federal Lands Highway, and other organizations with a focus on transportation. The panel reviewed the park project proposals selected by the National Park Foundation, and matched the candidates with the best qualifications with each project.

Transportation scholars have come from diverse educational and professional backgrounds; some have worked professionally in transportation-related fields. Others are postgraduate students pursuing PhD or masters degrees in civil engineering, landscape architecture, urban planning, public policy, and business administration. Most scholarship recipients are given assignments between 3 months and 1 year, although some have worked for the same park for several years.