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State expected to help Essex County launch hiker shuttle bus system

An Essex County Public Transportation bus drives through the Wilmington Notch on state Route 86 in September 2019, with Whiteface Mountain the background. (Enterprise photo — Andy Flynn)

KEENE VALLEY — Essex County is gearing up to launch a bus system to shuttle hikers to and from popular trailheads along state Route 73 this summer.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to announce approximately $1.2 million in state funding for the new system as part of his Executive Budget proposal, Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland said Monday. The goal is to have the shuttle system ready by this summer.

“The (state Department of Environmental Conservation), in pursuit of a near-term solution to hiker overuse on Route 73, has partnered with the town of Keene and Essex County on this strategy,” he said.

The roughly $1.2 million in state funding will be used to purchase four new, 24-passenger buses, expected to cost no more than $400,000. It will also fund the operation of those shuttles daily from around July through Labor Day, according to Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr.

The buses will run 16 hours a day and stop at all major trailheads on Route 73 during that summer period, according to Gillilland. In the fall, the shuttle system may be pared down to weekends and holidays.

The shuttles will likely work in two cycles: One will run from Marcy Field in Keene Valley north to the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg, in the town of North Elba. The other will run from Marcy Field south toward trailheads where hikers can access the High Peaks and Giant Mountain wilderness areas.

At the Essex County Board of Supervisors’ organizational meeting Monday, St. Armand town Supervisor Davina Winemiller asked if hikers would be asked to pay a fee to ride the shuttles. Gillilland said he wasn’t sure, but the discussions the county has had with the state so far indicate that it’ll be a “no pay” system.

The county will need “no less than eight” drivers, he said.

The town of Keene already runs its own shuttle to the popular Garden trailhead, and that will also continue to operate in the summertime. The town will also continue to have frontcountry stewards stationed at various places to greet and educate hikers, according to Wilson.

“I’m really glad to have the state jumping in with real substantial support here,” Wilson said. “I don’t know how much we’re going to alleviate, but I think if we make it safer and more user-friendly, I think that’s more what it’s going to be. From the visitors’ end, it won’t be such a chaotic, dangerous walk on Route 73. That’s my hope.”

The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and the Adirondack Mountain Club will both help advertise the shuttle and communicate how it works to hikers, according to Wilson. And having frontcountry stewards at Marcy Field, the hub for this shuttle system, will allow stewards to better educate hikers on Leave No Trace practices before they head out onto the trails.

The state’s expected $1.2 million would only fund the first season of operation. It’s unclear if the county would receive funding again next year to continue the program, but Gillilland said the county will nevertheless have use for the buses: With the Winter World University Games (also known as Winter Universiade) set to land in Lake Placid in January 2023, the county will likely need the extra capacity to accommodate the expected influx of visitors. The games are expected to attract around 2,500 student-athletes to the area.

The new funding comes on the heels of a difficult summer for the small town of Keene.

An influx of hiker traffic along the Route 73 corridor stretched the town’s limited resources, at times overwhelming the town’s available staff and Garden shuttle. The increased amount of foot traffic coincided with a roadside Route 73 parking ban the state put in place this past May.

The parking ban was intended to improve pedestrian safety along the corridor, which boasts some of the most popular trailheads in the High Peaks region. But on peak weekends, legal parking spaces filled up in the early morning hours, prompting confusion and frustration as visitors arrived to hike but had nowhere to park. Some hikers chose to park illegally, and some of them were ticketed by state forest rangers. Others parked further away and walked in groups along the roadside — one of the things the parking ban was intended to prevent.

The increased number of tourists has coincided with state-funded marketing efforts to lure visitors to the Adirondacks.

One day after Cuomo called High Peaks overuse “a legitimate issue,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in November announced the formation of a committee to recommend solutions to problems spurred by increased tourism to the High Peaks region.

The 13-member committee, which has since met several times, is being asked to put together a “strategic planning framework” that will include policy recommendations designed to accomplish five main goals:

¯ Ensure public safety.

¯ Protect trails and natural resources.

¯ Provide visitors with a good outdoor experience.

¯ Support the local economy.

¯ Make science-based decisions based on data.

The group will also have the ability to make recommendations on the department’s priorities and determine whether more data is needed to inform decisions.The committee’s plan is expected to be delivered to Seggos sometime this year.

Meanwhile, the town of Keene — and a volunteer-run group formed as part of its comprehensive planning effort — is also planning for the peak season ahead.

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