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Michigan, NPS to Partner on Transportation Innovation Projects

The state of Michigan and the National Park Service will be partnering on a number of transportation projects to address issues like congestion and parking, as well as increase electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

A National Park Service sign for Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
A National Park Service sign for Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Shutterstock
A new partnership between the state of Michigan and the National Park Service stands to further advance transportation options and access near and within these highly visited sites.

The state and federal government have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to begin working together on a broad range of projects to explore the numerous transportation issues that have surfaced in and around national parks in Michigan, which are also likely issues in other parks across the nation. These can include parking, congestion and the many sides of accessibility, which can also refer to the lack of available transportation to parks from low-income neighborhoods.

The first phase of the partnership will involve working with the National Park Service rangers and other officials, as well as neighboring cities “to understand what the biggest issues are,” said Trevor Pawl, Michigan's chief mobility officer. “What’s solvable? What’s scalable? What can be sustainable?”

The MOU is broad and does not commit the National Park Service or Michigan to any specific actions, said Steven Suder, national alternative transportation manager for the National Park Service, adding the agreement is modeled on the MOU signed by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Transportation in November last year to explore transportation innovation in the national park system.

However, it’s safe to say some of the topic areas to address include parking, electric vehicle charging and other transportation modes like transit or ride-hailing.

“Ideally, the goal is to have something work in Michigan, and then scale it out to places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon and whatever other National Park assets these needs can support,” said Pawl.

Michigan is already a leader in developing new transportation technologies in areas like autonomy, and connected and electrified transportation, said Pawl, making the state a natural proving ground and partner for solving some of the issues affecting the NPS.

“With everything going on in Michigan right now, it only made sense for the National Park Service to come to us and ask if we’d be interested in partnering, to essentially be a testbed for new mobility technology to solve some of these big problems,” said Pawl.

In the last three years the NPS has been taking a close look at emerging transportation mobility and innovation, said Suder, which it generally characterizes as micromobility, ride-hailing, EVs and their related infrastructure.

In areas like electrification, range anxiety is still a primary concern for EV drivers heading to a national park, said Pawl, who went on to note parks are generally in rural, backcountry areas which may not have many EV charging stations, or the electric capacity needed to support them.

“We think we can reinvent the American road trip, starting in Michigan. And in doing that, especially in an electrified future, will require having that charging infrastructure there and reliable,” said Pawl.

As an example of some of the transportation challenges state and parks officials hope to address, look to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The nearby town of Munising is often overwhelmed with traffic during peak visitation periods to Pictured Rock.

The state and park service staff “visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in July 2021 to discuss various possibilities with park and local community staff,” said Suder.

Problems with parking could create a bad enough experience for out-of-town travelers to opt against visiting a national park in the future, said officials.

“Which is an issue in this case,” said Pawl, adding the area and the park itself could be ripe for experimenting with various parking technologies and platforms to help visitors move more easily through parking and other facilities.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.


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