Acadia National Park leaders are defending a proposed $6 fee for each car on Cadillac Mountain, saying all the money raised would go back into operating a new system for vehicle reservations to improve parking on the peak.
In January, the National Park Service announced that it wants to charge $6 for each vehicle to go up and park on Cadillac, the highest peak on the US Atlantic coast. The proposed fee is three times the $2 charge in a trial run of the reservation system in October and comes as the park superintendent said he expects annual visits to increase this year to at or near regular levels after dropping by 22 percent during the pandemic in 2020.
At an online meeting of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, Acadia officials aired the fee and also discussed plans for dramatic new expansions and improvements including the Acadia Gateway Center set to open in 2024, a new Hulls Cove Visitor Center, a reconstruction or renovation of the Jordan Pond House and 21 new buses for the Island Explorer shuttle over the next five years.
Public comments on the proposed fee for vehicle reservations on Cadillac can be made through Feb. 11 at an National Park Service online site.
Fee to finance staff for vehicle reservations program
In the Feb. 1 online commission meeting, which was open to the public, Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider said the park wants to keep fees as low as possible, but the proposed $6 is needed to fund the salaries of employees to operate the system for vehicle reservations on Cadillac.
“We want to hear what the public has to say but we don’t have a lot of discretion on this if we are going to have the staff out there to operate it,” Schneider said.
Schneider said the park needs to hire new employees to operate the reservation system at Cadillac.
Commission member Ken Cline said $6 might not seem like much, but it has an impact on people who use the park. Cline asked if there might be another source of funding to operate the system for vehicle reservations on Cadillac. He noted that visitors are required to purchase a park entrance pass in addition to the reservation fee and the park is considering future reservation fees for other popular areas.
“It is $30 to get in and it will be $6 to get to the top of Cadillac, $6 I assume to go on Ocean Drive in a couple of years and then maybe $6 to park at Jordan Pond House,” Cline said.” It starts to add up.”
Vehicle reservations on Cadillac sold out at sunrise during trial run
At the meeting, John Kelly, management assistant for Acadia, unveiled a list of “lessons learned” from a pilot parking reservation program from Oct. 1 to 18 at Cadillac Mountain and the Sand Beach Entrance Station. Following the pilot, the park decided to postpone the Sand Beach system for at least a year and to operate only Cadillac for a full summer season in 2021. The pilot for the Sand Beach Entrance was hampered by traffic congestion and several other problems, while the pilot at Cadillac overall ran smoothly and sold out of tickets for sunrise, park officials have said.
Kelly said $4 of each $6 fee would be retained by the park primarily to finance the staffing of 15 to 20 employees to operate the system for vehicle reservations on Cadillac between sunrise and sunset from roughly May to October. The other $2 is a contracted administrative fee that will be collected by Recreation.gov, which provides online reservations for the NPS and other federal agencies.
Funds will also be available to improve a new entrance station at the foot of the summit road.
According to Kelly, the park anticipates it will take two to three weeks after the close of public comment to get final approval for the $6 fee.
Visitors to Acadia clash over proposed fee for vehicle reservations
Critics and supporters have weighed in on the proposed fee on social media, with 215 comments on the official Facebook page for Acadia National Park and 59 comments on the Acadia National Park Hiking Facebook group page, which is hosted by the authors of this blog.
On the park’s Facebook page, Heather Lambert, of Windham, NH, wrote, “I completely support this!!!” She wrote that she was once stuck in traffic on Cadillac for an hour because of cars that parked on both sides of the summit road, turning the two lanes into one.
During the season on certain days, Cadillac Mountain has often been hampered by illegal parking and traffic congestion, sometimes requiring the temporary closure of the estimated 3.5-mile summit road to incoming traffic. The park is creating the reservation system to manage parking, protect the fragile summit environment and improve the experience for visitors.
Karen Longhi Hawes of Ellsworth wrote on the park’s Facebook page that she would prefer that her lifetime Senior Pass to parks also cover the separate fee for vehicle reservations on Cadillac.
“I am disappointed that we need to do this,” she wrote. “Gone are the spontaneous trips for a ride through the park. We have lived here for decades and have enjoyed those spur of the moment trips.”
David Bello, of Bingham Farms, Mich., who has owned a home on Mount Desert Island since 2012, wrote that a “first come, first served” fee is an inefficient way to allocate a scare resource like parking on Cadillac. Bello, a member of the Acadia National Park Hiking Facebook group, wrote in a private message that he prefers to allow the market to allocate, with a variable fee that is higher during popular times and lower during less popular times.
Great American Outdoors Act could fuel renovation boom at Acadia
During the online commission meeting, Schneider and Kelly also released new details on what could be a construction and renovation boom, including the Acadia Gateway Center, to be located off Route 3 in Trenton about three miles north of Mount Desert Island, and several other projects in the park that could be financed by the new Great American Outdoors Act, the most sweeping law in 50 years for maintenance and upgrades at national parks.
Kelly said construction of the Acadia Gateway Center is scheduled for the spring of 2022 and opening for the summer of 2024.
“We are probably close…to getting this constructed in a very short time after almost 15 to 16 years of planning,” Kelly told the commission.
Plans for the 10,000-square-foot Acadia Gateway Center were boosted by $9 million from the Federal Transit Administration announced in August by Sen. Susan Collins. It would serve as an intermodal transit facility, with Island Explorer express routes to Mount Desert Island, a state welcome center operated by the nonprofit Maine Tourism Association and a visitor information center for Acadia with park entrance pass sales. The project is a partnership with the NPS, the state of Maine, the Federal Transit Administration and Friends of Acadia.
An operations building for Downeast Transportation, which runs the Island Explorer, is currently in the back of the property off Route 3. The Acadia Gateway Center will be built at the front of the land in the curve of the existing access road.
Acadia also has preliminary planning money this year for a new Hulls Cove Visitor Center, Kelly said. The goal is to make the main visitor center more of a destination and transportation hub for travelers with expanded parking and a possible doubling in size with a new theater.
Schneider said the Great American Outdoors Act is an “extraordinary opportunity” for Acadia. First-year funds from the law will be used for a “massive project” – replacement of the water and wastewater system on the Schoodic Peninsula, including the Schoodic Institute, which is located on property that was once an old US Navy base, he said.
Last summer, Congress and former President Donald Trump approved the act, which provides up to $1.9 billion a year for five years to finance a backlog of maintenance projects at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and American Indian schools, according to the NPS.
In future years, Acadia’s priorities for funding from the Great American Outdoors Act would include renovation or reconstruction of the Jordan Pond House and improving seasonal employee housing sites at Jordan Pond and off Harden Farm Road in Bar Harbor as well as housing for participants in programs at the Schoodic Institute, he said. Other priorities for money from the law include replacing water and wastewater systems on Mount Desert Island, particularly at Cadillac summit and Sand Beach, historic preservation at Bass Harbor Head Light and renovating roofs on the Schoodic campus including preserving the historic clay-tile roof at Rockefeller Hall, Schneider said.
Park officials have been extremely busy to prepare projects for submission for approval under the Act, he said.
The park will use a separate funding source to reconstruct the maintenance building located at the McFarland Hill headquarters at Acadia, Schneider said. A construction contract could be awarded next year for the work on the maintenance building, considered “the backbone of our operations here at Acadia,” he said.
Schneider also updated the commission on operations for the upcoming season. He said the Island Explorer will run again this year, after being canceled last year during the pandemic, but with a limit of 12 people to comply with social distancing. The limit could prove to be challenging considering the number of people who typically take the Island Explorer, he said. The shuttles usually can carry 43 passengers including 13 who would stand.
The shuttle this season won’t offer as many routes as in the past, but there will be more frequent service on the routes that are served, helping compensate for fewer passeangers, he said.
In other projects this summer, a rehabilitation is scheduled for the 150,000-gallon water tank and tower, a landmark on the Schoodic Peninsula, according to Keith Johnson, chief of facilities management at Acadia.
Also, the rehabilitation of the 6-mile Eagle Lake Carriage Road, delayed for a year by the pandemic, has started with construction of a temporary access road off Route 233 to the Liscomb Pit, the staging and materials area for the carriage road project. The rehabilitation of the carriage road around around the 436-acre lake is expected to be completed by the end of September, he said.
The superintendent said that park officials intend to open the Park Loop Road to motor vehicles on a normal schedule this year, after opening the road on June 1 in 2020 because of the pandemic. The Park Loop Road normally opens to traffic in mid-April, weather and road conditions permitting.
The park wants to try to open Acadia’s four campgrounds, which were closed last year, because of a lack of staff to clean bathrooms frequently enough during the pandemic, he said. The key to reopening the campgrounds is hiring staff, he said. “Is there a way we can operate with less capacity, fewer people in the campgrounds? Do we operate all the campgrounds? Those are the kinds of questions we are trying to sort through right now.”