Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about Acadia National Park’s proposed transportation plan.
ACADIA NAT’L PARK — The park’s long-range transportation plan, which was unveiled last Friday, has been more than three years in the making, but Superintendent Kevin Schneider emphasized that it is still only a draft and is subject to change.
“This is a proposal, it’s not a done deal,” he said. “We still have a long way to go in the process.”
The draft transportation plan is the “preferred alternative” of several that Acadia and other National Park Service officials are considering. It is intended to relieve traffic and parking congestion, which have become a serious summertime problem in recent years.
For example, Schneider said, the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road had to be closed to incoming traffic more than 70 times last summer because of congestion at the top.
“On an average, beautiful summer morning, there are 450 cars parked at the summit of Cadillac, where we have 150 parking places,” he said. “So there are basically 150 cars parked legally and 300 parked everywhere, many in unsafe locations.”
Frequently, there are similar instances of gridlock at sunset.
Between now and June 26, the public will have ample opportunity to comment — in person, online and by mail — on the transportation plan. And Acadia officials are expecting a lot of comments, particularly on the proposal to implement a “timed-entry vehicle reservation system” for accessing certain areas of the park at certain times.
During the park’s peak visitor season, from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, reservations would be required to drive up the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road and on the Ocean Drive section of the Park Loop Road, between the Sand Beach entrance station and the Fabbri picnic area. That section of the road includes some of the park’s most popular visitor sites, including Sand Beach, Thunder Hole and Otter Cliffs.
Reservations also would be required to park at peak times in the North lot at Jordan Pond House.
“The timed-entry system would provide reservation holders with a specific time window during which their vehicle would be permitted to enter the corridor or parking lot,” according to the transportation plan. “Once inside the corridor or parking lot, there would be no limits on length of stay.”
One source of congestion and safety concerns is parking in the right lane of some sections of the Park Loop Road, especially Ocean Drive.
“Right-lane parking would be retained in the near term, but eventually phased out as other options and parking become available,” the plan states, adding that the eventual elimination of on-road parking would “reduce the potential for vehicle/bicycle/pedestrian conflicts.”
Schneider said that at times on a busy summer day, as many as 400 cars are parked in the right lane on Ocean Drive. He said that section of the Loop Road had to be closed three times last summer because traffic was at a standstill.
Operation of the reservation system by an outside contractor would be funded by fees charged for reservations in addition to the regular park entrance fee. The price of a reservation has not been determined.
Another piece of the draft transportation plan is the elimination of the small parking lot and restrooms across Eagle Lake Road from the lake. A new, larger parking area with restrooms would be created at what is now a park maintenance storage area known as “Liscomb Pit,” which is off Eagle Lake Road a short distance up McFarland Hill.
In the interest of safety, roadside parking would be eliminated in the area of Eagle Lake.
Schneider said that neither a reservation system nor other elements of the plan could be implemented before 2020, and it might take longer.
David MacDonald, president of Friends of Acadia, said in a statement released last Friday that his organization is “encouraged by the fundamental direction of the park’s preferred alternative” for addressing traffic and parking problems.
He said a number of proposals in the transportation plan “make good sense.”
“The concept of reservations for the busiest parts of the park at peak times is worth exploring, as other national parks are doing,” MacDonald said.
Acadia recorded 3.5 million visits last year, a 59 percent increase in 10 years. It is now America’s seventh-most-visited national park, having edged ahead of Grand Teton in 2016 and Olympic last year.
Given the growth in visitation, which is expected to continue, “the status quo is no longer a viable option,” MacDonald said. “The overcrowding and traffic jams are becoming more frequent, posing real threats to public safety, visitor enjoyment and park resources.”
Acadia has scheduled three public information sessions on the park’s transportation plan. Those sessions will be at the Southwest Harbor Public Library on May 14, the Northeast Harbor Library on May 15 and Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor on May 16. All three sessions will be from 7-8 p.m.
An online information session will be held on June 13 from 7-8 p.m. This live webinar will be open to the first 100 people who register.
In addition to the information sessions, park officials have scheduled two open houses where they will invite public comment on the draft transportation plan. One will be held May 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Mount Desert Island High School. The other is set for May 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Peninsula School in Prospect Harbor.
Comments on the transportation plan may be submitted online at go.nps.gov/AcadiaPlan. Once there, click on “Open for Comment.” Written comments also may be submitted by mail.
“We will very much be listening to public comment,” Schneider said. “Ultimately, a different alternative [transportation plan] could be selected, or a new alternative representing a different combination of strategies could be developed.”
Park officials anticipate that some Acadia-area residents, who are accustomed to driving anywhere in the park at any time on the spur of the moment, will not be happy about the idea of a timed-entry reservation system for Cadillac Mountain and Ocean Drive. Schneider said he understands how they feel
“I get it,” he said. “I’m in that category, too. So, if there are other ways of managing congestion and managing the inventory of parking, we’re all ears.”
Christie Anastasia, the park’s public affairs specialist, said a reservation system likely would inconvenience Acadia-area residents less than might be expected because they typically don’t go to the most-visited places at times when reservations would be needed.
“Locals don’t usually drive the Loop Road at 10 a.m. on a beautiful day,” she said. “If you’re going for a picnic at Otter Cliffs after 4 p.m., you’re fine.”
And if someone has out-of-town visitors they want to take along Ocean Drive in the middle of the day or up Cadillac Mountain to see the sunset, a reservation system could be helpful, Anastasia said.
“With a reservation, you can actually envision taking your family to the top of Cadillac, which you can’t always do now.”
Schneider acknowledged that even if the park implements what is currently the preferred alternative transportation plan, there still will be some traffic congestion at times, especially if visitation continues to increase as expected.
“The question is how do we plan for that growth so that we can still provide a really high quality experience for visitors,” he said.