Maine seeks bids for Acadia National Park welcome center

The Maine Department of Transportation said it expects to break ground in 2023 on a new state-of-the-art, $32 million welcome center and transit hub for Acadia National Park and the region, marking a big step forward in a strategy to get more visitors to use the park’s fare-free shuttle and reduce traffic congestion.

Acadia Gateway Center

This design shows Island Explorer buses picking up visitors from the planned Acadia Gateway Center’s intermodal and welcome center, with a current state estimate of $32 million for the project. (NPS image)

The MaineDOT this week officially advertised for bids for a contractor to construct the national park welcome center and intermodal facility off Route 3 in Trenton about three miles north of the bridge to Mount Desert Island. The bids are scheduled to be publicly opened and read on Jan. 4 in Augusta and the winner must agree to complete work by May 3, 2025 for the project, estimated by the department to cost $32.076 million.

Paul Merrill, director of communications for the MaineDOT,  said the department expects groundbreaking for the Acadia Gateway welcome center and intermodal facility to happen in the first half of 2023. The MaineDOT would own the project, which would be funded mostly by federal transit aid, in addition to $4 million from the National Park Service, state money and $1 million from the Friends of Acadia, a partner in planning since 2004.

MaineDot pledges to deliver Acadia Gateway project

“Delivering potentially transformative projects like the Acadia Gateway Center takes many partners, many funding sources, and many years,” Merrill said in a statement. “We hope the bids come in such that we can move to the construction phase. This is an important project that we will deliver.”

Acadia Gateway Center

The National Park Service images of the interior of a planned 11,000-square-foot welcome center at the Acadia Gateway Center show a soaring post and beam ceiling and huge windows. (NPS images)

The 11,000-square-foot national park welcome center and transit hub would include cathedral ceilings, huge windows, two main levels, and a new busway for the Island Explorer and commercial tour buses right outside the doors, according to bid documents and slides previously released by the NPS. The national park welcome center will include geothermal heating, a new public drinking water well, about 250 additional parking spaces and charging ports for electric vehicles, according to bid documents.

Ahead of construction, the MaineDOT has approved architecture and engineering plans for the project including AECOM in Boston as the architect for the building, Coplon Associates in Bar Harbor as landscape architect, Gorrill Palmer Consulting Engineers of South Portland as civil engineers and WellSpring Geothermal in Nottingham, NH as geothermal engineers.

Planning for national park welcome center started in 2002

The national park welcome center and transit facility would be phase two of the Acadia Gateway Center, located on 152 acres on the west side of Route 3. The first phase was completed in 2012 and includes an existing bus maintenance facility, 110 spaces of year-round commuter parking and a 3,500-foot long access road called Gateway Center Drive off Route 3 and offices for Downeast Transportation, the nonprofit that operates the Island Explorer and regional buses in Hancock County.

Acadia Gateway Facility

This is phase one of the Acadia Gateway Center operated by Downeast Transportation.

The welcome center would have men’s and women’s toilets, nursing and companion care rooms, a break room and kitchen for employees, lobby and vestibule, passenger waiting area with glass windows to see arriving buses, Acadia National Park fee and visitor information desk and spaces for a regional tourism information area and for Eastern National book and gift shop.

The project was first conceived in 1992 and planning began in 2002, John Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park, told the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission in June.

“We will need to wait to see how the construction process goes,” Kelly said. “We all know that has been difficult to get through and we will look to the state to work on that.”

The NPS will staff the center and will partner with the Maine Tourism Association to provide regional tourism information as well.

Transit hub and welcome center part of strategy to reduce traffic

Kevin Schneider, superintendent of Acadia National Park, told the advisory commission in September that he was very excited to see progress on the Acadia Gateway Center.

Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider

Acadia National Park superintendent Kevin Schneider (NPS photo)

“You’ve heard this before,” Schneider told commission members. “We are very close on the Acadia Gateway Center.”

The project is part of a transportation strategy by the state and federal governments to reduce dependency on cars and curb traffic tie-ups during the tourist season on Route 3, Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. The Maine national park in 2021 attracted a record 4 million visits and is on pace for a similar number this year.

The Acadia Gateway Center is largely designed to attract day visitors and island commuters to the Island Explorer shuttle buses, which provides service on the island and the park from June 23  through the holiday weekend in October. The center would be built on a field inside a curve in the existing access road near the front of the northeast corner of the property.

Election-year grant boosted Acadia Gateway Center

The NPS would continue to operate the Hulls Cove Visitor Center in Bar Harbor, after the new welcome center and intermodal facility is built n Trenton. The NPS also has preliminary plans to expand the Hulls Cove visitor center and double the parking.

Executive director of Downeast Transportation

Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, stands next to the door of an Island Explorer bus parked inside a garage at the Acadia Gateway Center, part of phase one completed in 2012. (Photo courtesy Downeast Transportation)

Once stymied for lack of financing, plans for the intermodal and national park welcome center were boosted with a $9 million election-year grant from the Federal Transit Administration announced by US Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, in 2020. Collins, who was ultimately re-elected in 2020, said the center will benefit the local and state economies and address severe transit deficiencies in the region.

Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, stated that the new welcome center and transit facility should also ease the burden on parking and information lines at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center.

“The idea is to catch folks as they approach the island,” Murphy wrote on the Acadia National Park Hiking Facebook group. “We believe lots of day trippers will park there and ride express into and around the park. We believe a few people who are overnighting will leave their cars there and ride to their places of lodging. And we believe many people will stop there, get information and passes for the park, MDI attractions, and regional tourist attractions.”

“This has never been proposed as a panacea to the region’s parking, congestion, and traffic problems. It’s a piece in a puzzle.”

Village Green Information Center in Bar Harbor

While the Village Green Information Center is no longer staffed by the NPS to provide information, it continues to be a seasonal hub for the fare-free Island Explorer bus shuttle.

When the new welcome center and transit hub are operating, there are no plans to reduce Island Explorer service on Mount Desert Island, Murphy added. The Island Explorer hubs at the Village Green in Bar Harbor and the Hulls Cove Visitor Center will remain in place, he said. There are also plans to increase Island Explorer service on the island as well, he wrote.

All bids will be accepted but the state is aiming to approve the “lowest responsive bidder.” The winning bidder would have to complete a prequalification specific to the project in order to be awarded the contract, according to documents posted online by the MaineDOT.

 

4 thoughts on “Maine seeks bids for Acadia National Park welcome center

    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Fred. That is an interesting idea. We have not heard a discussion of that issue. However, take 2019 when the Island Explorer carried a record 645,000 passengers before the pandemic. If you charged just $1 for each passenger, that would raise another $645,000 a year.

  1. Michael Good

    I am looking forward to the new reception center and a way to limit more day traffic vehicles from needing to drive onto the Island. It will be a great day when this is finally built! A long time in the making.

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