Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider said that a trial run of a parking reservation program for the Sand Beach area caused confusion among many visitors and led to “unintended consequences” such as increased traffic congestion in some nearby residential areas.
“I think that is part of the reason why we are holding off on trying to move forward with Ocean Drive next year,” Schneider told members of the Bar Harbor Town Council during a videoconference meeting. “We did see those impacts. That is not something we want to see happen outside the park.”
He said park officials would consider moving the entrance for the popular Sand Beach area and other changes to improve the parking reservation program and reduce the impact.
Schneider took some flak from councilors about the troubled pilot of the reservation effort for Sand Beach, Thunder Hole and other sites along a one-way, two-mile stretch of the Park Loop Road called Ocean Drive.
Councilors voice concerns about Sand Beach reservation system
Schneider fielded questions about speeding cars and heavy traffic on Schooner Head Road, partly a residential street in Bar Harbor, that is an alternative way for reaching the entrance to Sand Beach. He also was pressed about “dangerous” conditions for bicyclists caused by right lane parking on Ocean Drive, the lack of a public shuttle to Cadillac and spillover of crowds into other sections of the park during the pilot.
Councilor Jill Goldthwait said the impacts on residents outside the park deserve more attention.
“We don’t have many secret places left on MDI any more,” she said. Schooner Head Road is one of the remaining places where a senior citizen or young child “can bicycle safely and that experience was greatly diminished by the volume and speed of traffic during that reservation time.”
Schneider said the trial at Sand Beach underscored the vital importance of the Island Explorer, the park’s fare-free shuttle bus that was cancelled because of the pandemic this year after setting a new record for ridership in 2019. He also cited the poor cell service at the entrance station, saying people could not access online reservations from their phones.
The park’s pilot parking reservation program was held from Oct. 1 to 18 at Cadillac Mountain and the Sand Beach Entrance Station. Following the pilot, the park said last week it would postpone the Sand Beach system for at least a year but will operate Cadillac for a full summer season in 2021. Schneider said the park is also considering a pilot next year for parking reservations at Jordan Pond.
Acadia weighs new entrance for Sand Beach and Ocean Drive
Goldthwait asked Schneider if there is any consideration for putting the entrance station for checking park passes at Sieur de Monts Entrance instead of Sand Beach. Sieur de Monts is two to three miles north of Sand Beach on the Park Loop Road. One issue is that Sieur de Monts is also north of parking for the Precipice, meaning the Precipice might become a reserved area if the entrance is moved to Sieur de Monts.
“Is that the better location for the entrance station?” Schneider said. “Do you close off Schooner Head Road and not allow access on to Park Loop Road from that point? Those are all the kind of questions we will be looking at as we think about how we implement reservations for Ocean Drive. We want to take a step back and think about how do we make sure those unintended consequences don’t happen.”
Schneider said he is willing to meet with residents about the traffic on Schooner Head Road. He said he thinks that “is a short-term growing pain” but the park wants to continue to work with people to make the Ocean Drive system successful when it is put back in place it in a future year.
Schneider said the park worked hard to get the word out in advance, but unfortunately a lot of visitors during the pilot were surprised by the need for a reservation to visit Cadillac and Sand Beach and were turned away. Judging from similar parking reservation programs at other parks, Schneider estimated that 35 percent of visitors showed up and did not know about the need to buy a reservation, despite extensive efforts to publicize and promote the program including the distribution of 60,000 rack cards.
During the pilot, Acadia sold 55,000 reservations, which cost $2 apiece, according to Schneider.
Parking reservation program runs smoothly at Cadillac Mountain
At Sand Beach entrance, 74 percent of the reservations were sold out during the pilot.The park sold out sunrise reservations at Cadillac Mountain and sold 86 percent of the reservations available at Cadillac during the day, the superintendent said.
Schneider said the system worked remarkably well at Cadillac summit, the highest point on the eastern US Atlantic coast and a hotspot for illegal parking and traffic jams at the busiest times of the year. During the pilot, Cadillac consistently had several spots available and was never overly crowded, he said.
“In many respects I wondered how we ever lived without a reservation system at Cadillac,” Schneider said at the Nov. 17 meeting.
Councilor Gary Friedman said that he biked the Park Loop Road during the reservation trial and was shocked at the number of cars parked in the right lane along Ocean Drive after the entrance station.
“That was kind of stunning to me, how many cars were parked there making for sometimes dangerous situations for bicyclists,” he said.
Congestion remains at Sand Beach even with reservations
Even with the reservations, Friedman said, the park seemed as congested as ever, including “tons of cars” parked along the Park Loop Road near the Precipice before Sand Beach.
Schneider said the park gradually increased the number of reservations for Ocean Drive during the pilot, causing more right lane parking at Acadia and congestion inside the area.
Reservations were increased to accommodate people who could not get a reservation and who otherwise might have taken the shuttle bus. While a lower limit at the start reduced right lane parking along Ocean Drive for a few days, it created “much bigger problems” with traffic outside the park, Schneider added.
Right lane parking is allowed on the Park Loop Road and will initially be retained but it could eventually be eliminated as other options and parking become more available for Acadia visitors, according to the park’s transportation plan.
Schneider said the intent of the parking reservation program is to manage to the available parking, not reduce visitation at Acadia. If people can’t get a reservation, they will have the opportunity to take the shuttle bus, expected to operate again in 2021.
Shuttle to Cadillac summit is longtime goal of national park
Matthew Hochman, vice chair of the council, said the park should consider a shuttle service to Cadillac summit for sunrise and sunset in order to service people who get closed out of a reservation. Bar Harbor is the gateway to Acadia with historic ties to the park and a tourist industry connected to the park.
“From the municipality standpoint, even though we are not the park, a lot of people don’t understand there is a distinction between Bar Harbor and the park,” Hochman said. “It kind of makes us look bad to some extent.”
The Island Explorer does not stop at Cadillac summit. An Island Explorer route to the summit is a longtime ambition of the park, but the superintendent said more revenues are needed to provide a service like that.
Schneider said the park plans to work with commercial transportation providers, with a goal of offering a sunrise tour to the peak of Cadillac with maybe a fee only for transportation, rather than a full-fledged tour.
Hochman said the Sand Beach parking reservation program pushed congestion from Ocean Drive to other areas of the park that typically are less busy and he said the park needs a mechanism for keeping an eye on that issue.
No easy fix for parking shortage at Acadia
Schneider said the park monitored how the reservation system affected other areas of the park and will continue to focus on that and how it affects visitors’ behavior.
Traffic and parking issues are not easy to fix, Schneider added. The pilot reservations followed a long planning process for the park’s 2019 final transportation plan.
On Monday, Oct. 19, the day after the trial run, rangers closed Cadillac Mountain because of traffic congestion at sunrise and prevented 200 cars from going up the summit road, he said.
“It goes to show the level of demand and congestion that is out there,” Schneider said. “These are challenging problems to solve.”