Hiker shuttle follows federal funds to Wilmington

An Essex County Public Transportation bus drives through the Wilmington Notch on state Route 86 Friday, with Whiteface Mountain the background. This is the route the county bus will travel for a hiker shuttle in upcoming weeks. (Enterprise photo — Andy Flynn)

Why are state and local government agencies sending hiker shuttle buses from Lake Placid to Wilmington instead of to Keene, where the busing might alleviate a persistent parking crunch at trailheads along state Route 73? One reason is federal funding.

Essex County receives State Operating Assistance (STOA) money from the federal Department of Transportation, administered by the New York State DOT, to help pay for its public bus service.

But it can only get that funding for established routes. The county has not yet established a bus route between Lake Placid and Keene’s trailheads.

“There’s a process we have to follow whenever we establish a new bus route,” said Jim Dougan, deputy director of the county’s Department of Public Works and the man in charge of its public transportation. That process can take time.

But the county already runs ski buses in winter between Lake Placid and Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington, so the state DOT considered that to be an established route eligible for STOA subsidies, according to Dougan.

Therefore, since Wilmington hiker shuttles can be implemented right away but Keene shuttles can’t, that’s what happened. The county, Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and state Department of Environmental Conservation announced the pilot program Thursday.

Essex County will run the shuttle buses daily from this coming Friday through Oct. 6, and then on the Columbus Day, Canadian Thanksgiving weekend Oct. 11 to 14. They will stop in Wilmington at trailheads for two non-mountain hikes — Whiteface Landing and Copperas Pond — the trailhead for the less-traveled Bear Den Mountain and two trails at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center.

ROOST CEO Jim McKenna and Dougan said the Wilmington shuttle wouldn’t go very far toward alleviating the increasingly large number of hikers scaling the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, which leads to trailhead parking problems along Route 73 and Adirondack Loj Road. They said the state DEC, DOT and Olympic Regional Development Authority are working out bigger-picture solutions in partnership with the county, ROOST and other public and private entities.

This summer, the DEC and DOT put up “no parking” signs on roadsides of Route 73 for 4 miles between Keene Valley and Chapel Pond, but while hikers have started showing up earlier in the morning to grab legitimate parking spots, they have also largely ignored the ban, which has been enforced only sporadically by DEC forest rangers. The DEC also invited 60 people from 40 organizations to a Route 73 summit this summer in Keene Valley to brainstorm and help prioritize solutions.

The Wilmington shuttle is more like low-hanging fruit, McKenna said, and it will add a needed service for many Lake Placid visitors.

“Most of them are not High Peaks hikers, so to speak,” McKenna said. “This is an attempt to expose people to … some trails that are doable for the average leisure traveler.

“Will it help relieve the problem at Cascade and Route 73? I don’t think so.”

Dougan noted that this is a pilot program, so officials will see how it goes.

“It’s trying to show some of the hikers that there’s other places they can go,” he said.

Some hikers are upset by the parking tickets. Also, environmental groups are urging the DEC to adopt a permit system that would limit the number of people allowed into the High Peaks Wilderness — which could also alienate visitors. Dougan said the county is trying to mitigate that.

“Essex County is trying to respond to some of the actions by DEC, putting up no-parking signs and stuff like that,” he said. “Essex County would still like the visitors to come, see what we have to offer and spend some dollars here. Tourism is a big part of our economy.”

He said another reason county buses aren’t ready to serve Route 73 trailheads is that it’s hard to find safe places for buses to park and unload people.

“That needs a little more thought and a little more work,” he said.

Dougan said he doesn’t envy the state DOT having to manage this situation on that popular, winding mountain highway.

“In a way I’m glad it’s not an Essex County-owned roadway because it’s a great source of concern,” he said.

“I think all those organizations understand that we do want visitors to enjoy those vistas and what we have to offer, but how do we do it sustainably? How do we keep them safe? How do we do it so the trails last? … I don’t know the answers yet. This is just, as I said, a pilot program to see what works and didn’t work.

“Maybe it will make a difference, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Could another source of subsidy have been found for a Keene shuttle? State agencies’ budgets are set for the year, and the county’s occupancy tax — on hotel, bed-and-breakfast and vacation rental stays — can only be used for tourism marketing by ROOST, plus a small portion the county keeps for administration. McKenna said his group is spending occupancy tax money to do communication about the hiker shuttles, but those funds can’t be used to pay for the shuttles themselves.

That could change if county lawmakers agree to ROOST’s proposal to boost the occupancy tax from 3% to 5%, and to use the extra revenue for projects related to tourism infrastructure. That could include hiker shuttle buses, McKenna said. The state legislature approved the increase this year.

Meanwhile, Dougan said, Essex County population is so spread out that it can’t afford to run buses without some kind of subsidy.

“If we weren’t going to see some kind of reimbursement, it would have been tough for Essex County to offer it,” he said.

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