The $9 million in federal funding announced earlier this month to help pay for a second phase of development at the Acadia Gateway Center is part of a broader plan of nearly $50 million worth of projects aimed at better managing the increasing number of visitors at Acadia National Park, which attracts millions every year.
Combined with an expected redesign of the existing visitor center property in the Bar Harbor village of Hulls Cove, and the removal of the information center on Thompson Island, where the causeway connects Mount Desert Island to the mainland, the planned expansion at the Trenton facility is “a key piece” to the Acadia’s new plan for how it will manage motor vehicles inside the park, according to the head of the advocacy group Friends of Acadia.
“It’s a big investment,” David MacDonald, president of FOA, said about the planned $22.4 million expansion at the Trenton facility, where a visitor center and intermodal transportation hub will be built near the existing storage and maintenance garage for the Island Explorer bus system. “This is a project for the future.”
The goal of developing the site in Trenton, Acadia officials have said, is to get more visitors to leave their personal vehicles there and instead ride Island Explorer buses onto Mount Desert Island so there will be less vehicle congestion in downtown Bar Harbor and at popular park sites such as Sand Beach and the summit of Cadillac Mountain. As part of the park’s new traffic management plan, it also plans to implement a vehicle reservation system for certain times of the day for Ocean Drive, where Sand Beach is located, and Cadillac’s summit.
The number of estimated annual visits to Acadia has surpassed 3.3 million in each of the past four years, reaching new consecutive highs from 2016 through 2018.
MacDonald said that even though visitation to Acadia seems to be down a little overall this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, certain parts of the park seem more crowded than ever, especially on weekends, in large part because the pandemic has put the Island Explorer bus system on hiatus for the entire year. The bus service, created in 1999, typically operates each year between late June and mid-October.
“You’ve never seen that before, because of the Island Explorer,” he said. “It’s been pretty vivid.”
The frequent congestion this summer, despite the global pandemic, shows how crucial it is to put the park’s new traffic plan into place so that MDI does not get overrun every summer with more vehicles than it can effectively absorb, MacDonald said.
Construction in Trenton is expected to begin next year on a new, 9,500-square-foot building with public bathrooms, a small retail store, and a staffed information desk where visitors can buy park passes, according to Acadia National Park official John Kelly. If all goes well, he said, the project would be completed in 2022.
In addition to the new building, there would be new parking for up to 350 vehicles, including buses, with up to 10 percent of the spaces equipped with charging kiosks for electric vehicles, he said. The facility, located on land owned by the Maine Department of Transportation, would be managed by Maine Tourism Association, which already operates seven visitor centers in Fryeburg, Kittery, Calais, Houlton and other locations. The 350 new parking spaces do not include 110 spaces already located in a park-and-ride lot on the property that Maine DOT maintains, Kelly said.
The Federal Transit Administration is contributing $12.4 million to the project, including the $9 million announced last week, Kelly said. Maine DOT is contributing $5 million, the park service is contributing $4 million and FOA has pledged $1 million.
In conjunction with expanding the Trenton site, the park also is starting to develop a new design for the visitor center property in Hulls Cove, Kelly said. The complete rehab of that property, which will include more parking and a new building — to replace the existing center that is accessible only by a flight of 52 stairs — has a preliminary ballpark figure of around $25 million, he said.
By moving some of the services now located in Hulls Cove to Trenton, Kelly said, the park is likely to create some interpretive exhibits on the ecology and history of the park at the redesigned site in Hulls Cove. The park also anticipates increasing the number of parking spaces there from 280 to 520, with the intent of encouraging people to ride the Island Explorer into the park from there, as well as from Trenton.
Acadia officials also intend to remove the existing information center at Thompson Island, where people drive onto the island from the mainland, and convert that property back to a natural state, Kelly said.
By moving many of the park’s existing visitor services to Trenton, MDI would benefit from reduced congestion and nearby towns would benefit from the chance to draw tourists who would otherwise be headed to MDI, MacDonald said. Tourists who stop at the Acadia Gateway Center will have the chance to learn about nearby amenities such as the Downeast Sunrise Trail in eastern Hancock County, publicly accessible trails and ponds near Schoodic Mountain, and the Schoodic Point section of Acadia on the mainland.
“This is a pretty strategic spot for the region,” MacDonald said.