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Hiker shuttles to start after all

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 — A new hiker shuttle along state Route 73 may start rolling this summer after all.

Though many local officials believed the state-funded hiker shuttle system would be postponed for a second year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced on Friday that the shuttle will, in fact, operate this summer. The DEC didn’t, however, say when the shuttle system would launch, how long it would operate for, nor what trailheads the shuttle would bring hikers to.

This hiker shuttle system was first announced early last year, before the coronavirus pandemic was declared and before the High Peaks saw a record number of hikers flock here last summer after months of isolation because of the pandemic.

In a joint statement issued on Friday, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland and Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. said specific route information is still being finalized. Shuttle operators are also still being hired.

“Some important details remain, including hiring necessary and properly certified shuttle operators and trail stewards, as well as finalizing route information, but we are continuing to collaborate and reach out to our partners to help make the shuttle successful,” the statement reads.

Wilson told the Enterprise on Friday that they’re aiming for the shuttle to be up and running in time for the busy summer hiking season.

“The goal is really to run it from Marcy Field out to the Chapel Pond area and have a safe turnaround there,” he said. Where the shuttle will turn around after reaching Chapel Pond is one of the details that’s still being worked out.

Between Marcy Field and Chapel Pond is a shorter route than what was initially expected. One shuttle was expected to 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 was expected to run from Marcy Field south toward trailheads where hikers can access the High Peaks and Giant Mountain wilderness areas. Wilson noted that they’re still hoping to eventually extend the loop to Lake Placid.

As the state, county and the town of Keene prepare to launch this pilot shuttle system, a lack of staffing — something businesses all around the region are also facing right now — remains an issue.

The DEC, Essex County and the town of Keene encourage anyone qualified to drive a bus to contact the Essex County Personnel Department at 518-873-3360 for more information on job opportunities.

The town of Keene also plans to continue running its own hiker shuttle again this year, from Marcy Field to the Garden trailhead, but there’s a shortage of drivers for that bus, too.

“Right now, one of the big things is staffing,” Wilson said. “The goal is to have the town of Keene shuttle running, but I don’t have enough drivers to do it consistently Saturday and Sunday.”

Whether the town’s shuttle is up and running this season will depend on whether the town can hire a full slate of drivers, according to Wilson. The town’s shuttle usually runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays through October. Bus drivers, who must have a valid commercial driver’s license and a class B driver’s license, are being offered $18 per hour.

Bus driver jobs aren’t the only kind of positions that the DEC and the town of Keene are looking to fill. The town is also hiring a clerk position in the town hall, plus the town is looking for people who are interested in being frontcountry stewards this year.

“I need to hire some more frontcountry stewards to be out in the parking lots and the bus stops to help people find their way and understand the system,” Wilson said.

Frontcountry stewards’ pay starts at $15 per hour. Anyone interested in being a steward can contact the town at 518-576-4444 or supervisorclerk@townofkeeneny.gov.

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