ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Park officials learned a lot from the trial run of the timed-entry reservation system for private vehicles Oct. 1-18, and they expect to learn more once all the data collected during that period have been analyzed.
People entering the Ocean Drive section of the Park Loop Road and the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road were required to have reservations, purchased in advance online. Each reservation was good for a specific time period.
The reservation system is to be fully implemented next summer with the goal of reducing traffic congestion and overflowing parking lots.
“I’m really glad we did this pilot because it gave us an opportunity to see how visitors reacted to it, to see some of the language we use in talking to visitors about it and to learn what our staffing requirements would be,” Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider told the Islander on Tuesday.
During the 18-days trial, park officials practiced what they call “adaptive management” by adjusting the number of reservations available at different times based on the previous day’s experience.
“When we started, we found that we weren’t selling enough reservations in order to make better use of right-lane parking on Ocean Drive,” Schneider said. “We realized that we needed to up the numbers, especially given that the Island Explorer [free bus system] wasn’t running.”
The park increased the number of reservations available for the Saturday of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day weekend, and then increased the number again for Sunday.
“Having the ability to feed more tickets into the system was really valuable in order to try to achieve our desired conditions,” Schneider said.
Early in the trial of the reservation system, the park found that too many tickets were being sold for the time around sunset at the Cadillac Mountain summit. The first night with a beautiful sunset, there was a 92-car overflow, which rangers accommodated by allowing parking on the roadway.
After that, Schneider said, “We were able to dial back the number of tickets for sunset at Cadillac to get it to the correct numbers. From that point on, it worked great.
“Every time I went up Cadillac, the parking lot was basically full, except you would find five or six parking spaces available. So, it was working just perfectly. I was very pleased to see how that played out.”
On Monday of this week, the day after the trial of the reservation system ended, the parking lot at the Cadillac summit was overflowing at sunrise, and 200 cars were turned away at the entrance to the summit road.
“That just illustrates why the reservation system is so valuable,” Schneider said.
Ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic no doubt affected the results of the trial.
Typically, a large percentage of visitors to Mount Desert Island in early October are cruise ship passengers who take buses into the park. There are no cruise ships here this year, but there have been more visitors driving their own cars. That includes some visitors who, in a normal year, would have ridden an Island Explorer bus into the park.
“Without the Island Explorer, people have no alternative than to take their cars,” Schneider said. “Clearly, the Island Explorer plays a really important part in managing congestion and traffic in the park.
“There still are a lot of unknowns with how COVID is going to affect us next year,” he said. “Even if we’re dealing with COVID, we want to provide some level of Island Explorer service. That’s something we’re going to have to think carefully about as we look at dealing with reservations, especially for Ocean Drive, which is the segment that Island Explorer really assists with.”
He said comments about the reservation system from visitors with reservations was generally positive. But a significant number of people arrived without being aware that they needed a reservation.
“That was something we saw played out much as we expected, based on the experience of other national parks that have instituted parking reservation systems,” he said.
But he said that, in those parks, the number of people who showed up without reservations dropped dramatically in the second year of the reservation system.
Overall, he said, “If the objective of the pilot was to learn, then we really met that objective. We learned an extraordinary amount.
“We expected there to be growing pains, and there were growing pains.”
Among those pains, apparently, was the effect of the reservation system on some places in Acadia and around MDI for which reservations were not required.
Tremont selectmen voiced concern about parking overflow by folks visiting Bass Harbor Head Light.
“It was ridiculous last week,” Selectman Mike Mansolilli said at the board’s meeting on Monday.
Cars were parked along Harbor Drive as far away as McKinley Lane, creating a traffic hazard on the narrow road. Last year, the town installed “no parking” signs on Lighthouse Road because several residents complained that parked cars often prohibited them from accessing their homes. Recently, the Maine Department of Transportation installed “no parking” signs on Harbor Drive in the area of Lighthouse Road at the request of the town because vehicles parked around the 90-degree curve by Bass Harbor Campground were creating a hazardous situation.
“There are ‘no parking’ signs every 50 feet,” said Board of Selectmen Chairman Jamie Thurlow, noting many of the vehicles were parked illegally.
When asked if the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office was issuing tickets to cars parked illegally, Town Manager Chris Saunders expressed frustration.
“They’re not towing,” he said to the board. “They’re not ticketing. I’ve asked them specifically.”
Saunders then said the reason the sheriff’s office gave for the lack of enforcement was that most of the vehicles were from out of state, which makes enforcement difficult.
“We should talk about it at some point so we’ll have a plan for next year,” Thurlow said, after asking if there could be a meeting between the Board of Selectmen and park officials.
Mount Desert Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley contributed to this story.