After 20 years of planning, construction of a new $24 million Acadia National Park welcome center and transit hub could be completed in 2025, providing visitors a major new way to take the fare-free shuttle to the park and help reduce crowds and traffic problems.
The Acadia Gateway Center, which is a project of the Maine Department of Transportation, will serve as an intermodal transportation hub and offer a 11,000 square-foot welcome center. The center will boast high beamed ceilings, huge windows and a new busway for the park’s Island Explorer shuttle and commercial tour buses right outside the doors, a National Park Service official said.
The national park welcome center will be “an attraction in itself,” said John Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park, and comes when Acadia drew more than 4 million visits in 2021 and parking was tighter than ever inside the park. The new welcome center, when built, would operate along with the existing Hulls Cove Visitor Center.
In a new boost for the project, the Maine Department of Transportation, in a construction advertising schedule for 2022, says it will seek bids in December to construct the Acadia Gateway intermodal and welcome center, earmarking $26.2 million for the project.
Kelly released new slides that display the expansive interior of the national park welcome center with cathedral ceilings, as well as a new overall site plan that shows the busway and parking. Two hundred and fifty new parking spaces with 32 spaces for electric vehicles behind the center are also planned, Kelly said.
Groundbreaking for national park welcome center eyed for 2023
Kelly said the design of the intermodal transportation and welcome center is being finalized and construction could begin in 2023.
“We’re expecting to go to contract in early 2023 with a potential opening in 2025,” Kelly told an online meeting of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission. “Those dates, those timeframes are tentative, but that is the target right now.”
The national park welcome center and transit hub, planned for almost 20 years, will be in Trenton on the west side of Route 3 about 4 miles north of Mount Desert Island in a spot planned to catch traffic on the way to the park. It would be built in a field inside the curve of an existing access road near the front of the northeast corner of the property.
The NPS will help staff the new welcome center and provide information, sales of entrance passes and possibly vehicle reservations to Cadillac Mountain, Kelly said. An Eastern National bookstore, restrooms, seating and information areas are also planned.
Acadia shuttle operator set to run transit system at new center
Downeast Transportation, which operates the seasonal Island Explorer and year-round public service for area residents, will run the transit services at the center. Buses would arrive along a new one-way bus access drive outside the center that would loop from the existing access road off Route 3.
The existing road services Downeast Transportation’s administrative, maintenance and storage facilities located in the back of the site, and completed in 2012 as the first phase of the Acadia Gateway Center project. There’s also an existing park and ride lot for commuters.
While the national park will have staff at the center, the Maine Tourism Association, a private, nonprofit organization that runs the state of Maine visitor centers, will also staff and operate the welcome center, and provide statewide and regional information to visitors. The center will include restrooms and seating styled for a bus hub, acording to the NPS slides.
The national park welcome center is a partnership that includes the national park, the state of Maine, the Federal Transit Administration and the Friends of Acadia.
Funding for the project received a boost in the fiscal 2021 federal budget with approval of $4 million from the National Park Centennial Challenge Fund, according to Katie Liming, public affairs specialist for the NPS. The challenge fund, created by Congress in 2016, receives offsetting collections from the sale of senior passes for federal lands.
Election year grant and money from senior passes help propel center
Once stalled for lack of funding, plans for the intermodal and welcome center were jump-started with a $9 million election-year grant from the Federal Transit Administration announced by US Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, in 2020. Collins said the center will benefit the local and state economies and address severe transit deficiencies in the region.
Prospects for the center also got a lift this year when the Maine Department of Transportation included the project’s design and construction in its work plan for the next three years. The Maine DOT will award design and construction contracts for the project.
The Federal Transit Administration is paying for most of the project, Kelly said.
The effort began in 2004 when the Friends of Acadia purchased an option for the 369-acre property in Trenton and the Maine Department of Transportation purchased the estimated 150 acres needed for the Acadia Gateway Center. A new hiking trail was inaugurated in 2013 on the rest of the property, according to Friends of Acadia.
Even with the new welcome center, Acadia National Park will still operate the aging Hulls Cove Visitor Center. For now, the park is putting on the backburner plans to expand the visitor center, increase parking and improve bus circulation but the work is still an important aspect of the park’s transportation plan, Kelly said.
The existing Thompson Island Information Center, located on the west side of Route 3, would no longer be needed once the new welcome center is running, according to the park’s 2019 transportation plan. Structures at the Thompson Island Information Center would be removed and the area restored to natural conditions.
There are hurdles ahead. With inflation and supply shortages the project may take longer and cost more. Will the money be there to cover the increased cost?
Another hurdle would be Downeast Transportation’s struggles to hire enough bus drivers.
On the other hand, the center would be a boon for off-island lodging and could help to ease the housing shortage on MDI. Visitors could stay in Ellsworth or Trenton, buy park passes at the Gateway Center and take the bus into the park.
It is not clear to me. The post seems to imply that visitors might access Acadia National Park Tours, Oli’s Trolley, and other private tours including Cadillac Mountain from the Gateway Center. If so, that would be great and help to relieve congestion in Bar Harbor.
Good points on inflation in the construction industry and the hurdles ahead. John Kelly of the NPS did say the construction start time is tentative and it would not be surprising if another delay occurred. There are also obstacles in hiring bus drivers for the Island Explorer. You do need a commercial license and for whatever reason, a lot of young people are not getting licenses these days. The labor market is tight, too. The shuttle was on a reduced schedule in 2021 and now it is set to go back to the full schedule for this year, so we will see how it goes. Seems like a tough and often thankless job to drive an Island Explorer and some older folks may be driving, not so much for the money but as a way to give back to the park while also staying busy in the summer. Don’t know that for sure but a lot of people want to give back when it comes to Acadia and they do it in various ways. Interesting that there is already an Island Explorer stop at the Gateway Center — the Trenton route — and it is back on the schedule for this year. John Kelly did say that the planned new bus loop is for commercial tour buses, also, but he did not mention specific operators. Another angle that you mention is that the Gateway Center could help in the housing shortage. It is slated to be used by commuters also, not just day visitors to Acadia, so you make an excellent point on that, too. Thanks very much for this comment and advancing the issue.