ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Officials here plan to hire a few parking lot attendants this summer to help alleviate congestion and “trouble-shoot problems before it gets to the point where we see gridlock and areas have to close down,” Superintendent Kevin Schneider told the Acadia Advisory Commission last week.
Gridlock was a serious problem in several places in the park last summer.
“We had to close the Cadillac Mountain summit road to inbound traffic on 12 occasions because congestion at the summit became so bad that it was impossible to respond to emergencies up there,” Schneider said. “Sometimes it takes 30 to 45 minutes just to circulate through the summit area.”
Finding a place to park anywhere near Sand Beach or Thunder Hole also was nearly impossible at times.
“We had to close Ocean Drive twice because of congestion, where traffic became literally backed up to and beyond the entrance station at Sand Beach,” Schneider said.
“Those are difficult moments for us. We don’t like to have to do that. But when it becomes so gridlocked that it’s just not safe, we have to make those very difficult decisions.”
Acadia Management Assistant John Kelly said Tuesday that the park plans to hire up to five seasonal rangers “to help manage traffic flow and parking at the most congested areas and at the busiest times this summer.”
He said the attendants would be assigned primarily to the parking areas at the Cadillac Mountain summit, Sand Beach and the northern parking lot at Jordan Pond.
“They would not be commissioned law enforcement rangers, but would wear a uniform and carry park radios to obtain assistance as needed,” Kelly said. “This is a pilot program … to better understand traffic and parking conditions and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of using staff to improve conditions.”
President Trump’s Jan. 23 executive order placing a 120-day freeze on federal government hiring allows exemptions for seasonal employees. Kelly said the National Park Service is “working through the administrative approval process” necessary to use the exemption.
“For now, we are still on hold to hire any seasonal employees,” he said.
Kelly told the Advisory Commission last week that progress is being made on the park’s comprehensive transportation plan, which aims to alleviate traffic and parking problems. The planning process, which began in 2015, has included input from residents of communities around Acadia.
Kelly said the 20-member planning team, which includes park staff, outside consultants and National Park Service staff with expertise in transportation issues, held a three-day workshop in late January to “refine” the preliminary, alternative solution concepts that the park unveiled last fall.
By the end of this year, he said, “We hope to have a draft set of alternatives and a draft environmental impact statement … to go out for another round of public comment. We hope to have something that’s fairly well formulated so we can begin to move toward a preferred alternative [set of solutions] and a final decision.
“We’re shooting to have a final decision by late 2018.”
Kelly said the alternative solutions being considered include “varying degrees of managing both commercial buses and private cars,” primarily on the Park Loop Road.
“We’re also developing site-by-site alternatives for places like Echo Lake Beach and Seawall. Those will be part of the puzzle because we know that how we manage the Park Loop Road will have impacts beyond that.”
The transportation plan is intended to address problems with vehicular traffic and not to restrict the number of people who visit Acadia in any given year. But members of the Advisory Commission said traffic and visitor numbers are closely linked.
“I heard more anecdotal comments from family and friends last year about very crowded trails and scenic overlooks and so forth,” commission member Ben Emory said.
“People were saying it seemed really different last summer. It sounds like, at least in parts of the park, the number of people has reached a point where the quality of the experience has declined.”
The park’s 3.3 million visitors last year far surpassed the previous record of 2.8 million set in 2015.
“With another half-million people coming to the park, it creates challenges,” Schneider acknowledged. Despite those challenges, he said, “I think the staff did a marvelous job operating the park.”