TRENTON — It’s still just a big open field on the west side of Route 3.
The dream of an Acadia Gateway Center here remains stalled due to a lack of funds, and President Donald Trump’s proposed 12.7 percent cut in transportation-related spending next year does not augur well for an infusion of more federal money for the project anytime soon.
Construction of a building to serve as a visitor information center and Island Explorer bus terminal, along with a parking lot for nearly 500 cars, would cost an estimated $12.5 million. That is nearly $9 million more than is currently available.
The primary reason for creating the Gateway Center was, and still is, to reduce traffic congestion in Acadia National Park and elsewhere on Mount Desert Island by making it convenient for day visitors and commuters to leave their cars on the mainland and ride the Island Explorer buses to MDI.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) set aside a total of $3.8 million for construction in 2011 and 2012. But also in 2012, the FTA turned down a request from the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) for an $8.36 million grant. As a condition of that grant, the MDOT would have chipped in $2.09 million.
The MDOT owns the land for the Gateway Center on Route 3 at Crippens Brook and has been planning the visitor center and transit hub in cooperation with the national park.
The concept is at least 25 years old. The “General Management Plan” that Acadia adopted in 1992 called for “a new gateway and visitor center [to] welcome visitors, orient park users to the range of recreational and interpretive opportunities available and inform visitors of their transportation options.”
The management plan also envisioned “an island-wide transportation system that includes loops through the park.”
That transportation system, the free Island Explorer buses, began operating in 1999. A bus maintenance, fueling and operational center for Downeast Transportation, the nonprofit company that operates the Island Explorer, was completed in late 2011 as part of the first phase of the Gateway Center. The cost of phase one, which also included installing utilities for the rest of the project, building the entrance drive and widening Route 3 on either side of the entrance, totaled $14.8 million. Federal grants covered 78 percent of the cost; the state paid the rest.
‘Rightsized’ visitor center
The original, 2006 design for the Gateway Center envisioned a 25,000-square-foot visitor information and bus boarding facility with a price tag of nearly $20 million.
In 2012, the size was reduced by nearly half to 13,000 square feet. AECOM, the international design and engineering firm that has been working with the MDOT on the project from the outset, hired architect Roc Caivano and landscape architect Sam Coplon, both of Bar Harbor, to help with the redesign.
Caivano said at the time that it should not be thought of as “downsizing,” but rather, as “rightsizing” because it would still provide ample space for its intended functions.
“It’s going to be a timber-frame structure with big digital screens and all kinds of helpful 21st-century technology,” Caivano said. “As you walk through the door, the first thing you’ll see is a big window with a view of MDI.”
The $3.8 million that the federal government allocated six years ago for construction of the visitor center and bus terminal is still available. But with prospects for additional federal funding now uncertain, the MDOT has been working with AECOM to see if there are ways to further shrink the size and cost of the visitor center.
Acadia Management Assistant John Kelly suggested that, if additional federal money is not forthcoming, funding might be sought from other sources, such as private donors.
Attempts to speak with the MDOT officials in charge of planning the Acadia Gateway Center about the status of the project and prospects for its completion were unsuccessful.
Park transportation plan
Nearly two years ago, when Acadia officials began the process of creating a comprehensive, long-range transportation plan for the park, they hoped the Gateway Center would play a key role. But now they are moving ahead with the plan and not waiting to see when or if the visitor center and bus terminal will be built.
Last fall, the park invited public comment on “preliminary alternative concepts” for addressing Acadia’s traffic and parking problems. Over the past few months, since the comment period ended, those concepts have been refined.
Kelly said last week that the transportation planning team hopes to have a “fairly well formulated” set of alternatives to go out for another round of public comment by the end of this year.
“We’re shooting to have a final decision by late 2018,” he said.
One of the stated purposes of the transportation plan is “to clarify how the scale, design and function of the Acadia Gateway Center and Hulls Cove Visitor Center can help to mitigate crowding and congestion, improve visitor orientation, increase compliance with park entrance passes, help manage commercial tour buses and support the Island Explorer bus system.”
Kelly said last week that the transportation plan likely will provide “the ultimate answer about what (the Gateway Center) is going to be, what services are going to be there and the scale of it all.”
How we got here
In 2002, officials of the national park, MDOT and Downeast Transportation began looking at potential locations for the Gateway Center, all of them in Trenton.
“It was determined that Ellsworth was too far and the island was too late,” Kelly said. “We couldn’t effectively put it on the island because the roads [Routes 3 and 102] split.”
In January 2004, Friends of Acadia (FOA) purchased an option to buy a 369-acre parcel on the north side of Crippens Brook. The following year, the MDOT received federal grants totaling $7 million to develop engineering and design plans for the Gateway Center there.
FOA bought the property Dec. 20, 2007, for $850,000. A week later, FOA sold about 41 percent of the property, 151 acres, to the MDOT for $370,000. FOA deeded the other 218 acres to the town of Trenton in 2013 after signing a conservation easement on the property with Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Much of the MDOT’s property is wetlands; only about 22 acres were deemed buildable.
A ceremonial groundbreaking for the Gateway Center was held on a bitterly cold day in December 2009.
MDOT Commissioner David Cole, who is now Ellsworth’s city manager, said at the ceremony that few transportation projects make more sense than the Acadia Gateway Center.
“We realize we’re not going to build our way out of our transportation problems [with more roads],” Cole said. “We’re going to be most effective using different modes of transportation – getting cars off the road where we can, getting people onto buses where we can, and getting people where they want to go in a timely way so they can spend their time, spend their money and enjoy our wonderful assets rather than getting stuck in congestion and construction.”