Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories about Acadia National Park’s draft transportation plan.
ACADIA NAT’L PARK — For a welcome center, its location isn’t very welcoming.
You can’t even see the Hulls Cove Visitor Center from the parking lot, and you have to walk up 52 steps to reach it. Then, once you get there, you’re likely to find it overcrowded.
“That visitor center is not what it should be for America’s seventh most-visited national park,” Superintendent Kevin Schneider said. “It’s not accessible for mom or dad pushing a stroller or for a huge number of our visitors who can’t physically hike up all those steps but don’t have a wheelchair sticker on their car window.”
For people who can’t climb the stairs, there is a handicap-accessible entrance off of a driveway that goes up the hill to the side of the visitor center. There are four handicap-reserved parking spaces at the top of the drive, as well as six in the main parking lot near the bottom of the stairs.
Schneider said he would like to see a new visitor center built at the parking lot level.
The Hulls Cove Visitor Center, which is the first stop in the park for many visitors, was built in 1968. Two renovation projects were completed in the 1990s.
Replacement of the visitor center is part of Acadia’s draft long-range transportation plan that was released last month. However, the park is unlikely to have the funds to undertake a major construction project anytime soon, Deputy Superintendent Mike Madell said earlier this spring. So, a major reconfiguration of the existing visitor center is expected to begin after it closes for the season Oct. 31.
“That is intended to buy us about another 10 years of use of the building,” Madell said.
On most days in the summer, the visitor center is packed and there are long lines for entrance passes and information. Much of the redesign of the building will be intended to improve circulation “and hopefully make for a little better experience for visitors,” Madell said.
In addition to eventually replacing the existing visitor center, the park’s draft transportation plan calls for the center’s parking lot, which fills to overflowing on many days in the summer and early fall, to be enlarged.
Last year, the park counted a record 3.5 million visits. With that number expected to keep rising and with the planned phasing out of right-lane parking on the Park Loop Road, the need for parking at Hulls Cove will greatly increase, Schneider said.
More people will want to park there, not only to go to the visitor center, but to get on the free-to-ride Island Explorer buses.
Acadia Gateway Center
Construction of a visitor information center and bus terminal at the 22-acre Acadia Gateway Center site in Trenton could help alleviate some of the park’s traffic and parking congestion, but it wouldn’t solve the problem entirely, according to Schneider. And prospects for federal funding to complete the project, which has been on hold for more than six years, remain uncertain.
In late 2011, a fueling, maintenance and operational facility for Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer bus system, was completed as part of the first phase of the Acadia Gateway Center project. Phase one also included widening Route 3, building the entrance drive and installing utilities for the rest of the project, which was to include a visitor information center and bus boarding facility.
The original 2006 design for that called for a 25,000-square-foot building and a parking lot for about 500 cars with a combined price tag of nearly $20 million. In 2012, the size of the building was cut nearly in half and the estimated cost of phase two was reduced to $12.5 million.
The state still has $3.8 million in Federal Transit Administration funds that were earmarked for the project, but there remains a funding gap of nearly $9 million.
So, Acadia’s draft transportation plan does not assume the Gateway Center’s visitor information and bus boarding facility will be built anytime soon. But Schneider said he would like to see it happen at some point.
“It can be a very helpful thing,” he said. “It can be a great location for commuter parking, keeping people from having to drive all the way in to Bar Harbor. We could design an Island Explorer route for those commuters, with express buses in the morning and afternoon to key locations in Bar Harbor.”
He said the Gateway Center also could be a good park-and-ride option for people who are just visiting Acadia for a day and for those on motor coach tours who aren’t spending the night on MDI.
“The motor coaches could drop off their passengers at the Gateway Center to use the bathroom, see some exhibits, learn a little about Acadia and then hop on a [smaller] bus for a tour provided by a park concessionaire.”
Under the park’s draft transportation plan, the small information center on Thompson Island would be demolished. The site would be restored to natural conditions.