The pandemic has delayed openings at Acadia National Park and indefinitely postponed operation of shuttle buses, but leaders are forging ahead with plans for a trial run this fall of a parking reservation system for Cadillac Mountain and Ocean Drive, with people allowed to make online reservations in August.
The dry run for parking at a reserved site at Cadillac and along Ocean Drive near the entrance to Sand Beach will be held in October. Reservations to park can be made well ahead of the test run, probably as early as Aug. 1 over the same web-based system currently used for reservations at National Park Service campgrounds.
Acadia is also planning a reservation system to park at the north lot of Jordan Pond starting not before 2022, but that location will not be in the trial run, according to John T. Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park.
The parking reservation system, a key aspect of the park’s new transportation plan to reduce traffic congestion, is planned to operate for a full visitor season for the first time in 2021 between June 23 and the second Monday in October at Cadillac summit and the Ocean Drive Corridor, or past the entrance to Sand Beach. The test drive is aimed at providing important lessons for running the system in 2021.
Kelly acknowledged uncertainties, but he said the coronavirus pandemic so far is not altering plans for the dry run of the vehicle reservation system.
“There is so much unknown that I can’t say for certain anything really but we are on schedule and we have every intent on doing the trial run and keeping it going next year,” Kelly said in a phone interview.
“It is a great opportunity to get the bugs out of what we are preparing and end up going into the off season versus starting it next June and going into the busiest part of the season.”
Parking reservation system requires fee in addition to park pass
The online parking reservation system is intended to give people a better experience and a safer situation atop 1,530-foot Cadillac, the highest mountain in Acadia and the highest point on the east coast of the US, and other reservation areas.
There will be a small administrative fee for parking during the trial system in October and then in 2021 the fee will go up a little bit to provide revenue that will be used to help expand the fare-free Island Explorer bus shuttle in the park, he said. The reservation system for Acadia would be operated and managed by Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. as part of a 10-year federal contract the consultant holds for the inter-agency web site called Recreation.gov.
The reservation fee is in addition to a pass to enter Acadia.
Acadia was initially hopeful of beginning the online parking reservation system in the summer of 2020, but a 35-day federal shutdown last year delayed implementation, and it turns out that given the pandemic, it may be better and more effective to start its first full season in 2021.
Fred Ehrlenbach, chair of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, said he expects visitation at the park could drop by 1 to 1.5 million this year.
“I don’t think you are going to have that many people this summer,” he said, “not only because of the COVID-19 issue but also because of the economic issue.”
Ehrlenbach said the reduction in visitation “is going to be devastating,” for many local businesses that depend on tourism.
But he said he was not concerned about the vehicle reservation fee because it is not going to be that high.
Isolation rule could stymie tourists
Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order that requires anyone traveling into Maine to immediately isolate and stay away from public places for 14 days. The quarantine covers residents returning to the state, second home owners and tourists and is in effect through June and possibly July and August. Violators of the quarantine requirement would face criminal penalties of up to 6 months in jail and $1,000 fine. Second homeowners with a lot of time off or returning year-round residents might be able to quarantine for two weeks, but it’s a nonstarter for most tourists.
“The governor says they are going to have to quarantine for 14 days,” said Ehrlenbach. “That’s the way it is.”
The Acadia advisory commission voted in support of the transportation plan in Sept. 2018.
Likely beginning Aug. 1, people would log on to Recreation.gov to make vehicle reservations for the trial run at Acadia in October and then again for a spot next year.
“For the dry run this October, we will only charge the administrative fee that is contracted with Recreation.gov to manage the reservation system,” Kelly wrote in a followup email. “We have not determined that fee yet. The plan beginning in 2021 is for the fee to include a revenue component that will be retained by park and used to enhance the Island Explorer bus system.”
Cancellation and refund policies for the trial run and full season vehicle reservation system are being developed, he added. No decisions have been made, but the park will build in plenty of flexibility for visitors, according to Kelly.
No limit for stay in reservation area
Hours for the vehicle reservations will be 7 am to 5 pm daily at the Sand Beach entrance and hours for Cadillac Summit will be broken into three reservation periods: sunrise, daytime and sunset, according to Kelly.
“You could get a reservation for any time in that period and it is a timed entry so there is no limit to how long you can stay in any of those locations,” Kelly said. “Once you get past the checkpoint, you are free to stay as long as you like.”
“When it gets up and running, you will be able to make reservations as early as 6 months [in advance] and right up to the moment you want to enter, subject to availability of course.”
If you wait to the last minute on a busy day in August, getting to Sand Beach may be a challenge, he said.
The trial run for the online parking reservation system would take place during the first two or three weeks of October.
Acadia has not set the exact start and end dates for the vehicle reservation system for either the trial run in 2020 or the season in 2021, but would like them to coincide with Island Explorer shuttle service, which in a normal year operates from June 23 to the second Monday in October.
California and Hawaii parks also charge fee for parking reservations
Kelly said the Acadia reservation system is similar to one on Recreation.gov for sunrise from 3 to 7 am at Haleakala Summit in Haleakala National Park in Hawaii. Tickets cost $1 per vehicle and drivers show a confirmation email when entering the park and a photo ID matching the name of the reservation-holder.
The Muir Woods National Monument in California, on the other hand, has its own private contractor operate an online and phone reservation system for parking, with $8.50 for a standard parking reservation.
At Acadia, parking permits will be limited according to the capacity of each reservation area. The exact numbers for capacities have not been developed yet, but the intent is to make it easy for people to find a parking spot.
Acadia is working with people at Recreation.gov to determine the caps on parking for any sort of 15-minute slot during the reservation time.
It is a calculation that involves assumptions about the number of people who would be arriving, the number of available spaces and the turnover rate, or the length of stay in each of the areas.
“How many can they allow in on the assumption of how many people are coming out? That number is not going to be a steady number. We know that because the time the reservation system will be in place, there are lots of variations to the demand. That number should be changed on the fly to ensure we have got the right input.”
The online parking reservation system is needed, Kelly said. While visitation at Acadia is expected to decrease significantly this year because of the pandemic, the number of visits has skyrocketed over the past 10 years to about 3.5 million for each of the past three years.
The summit of Cadillac, Ocean Drive at Sand Beach and the north lot of Jordan Pond have become hot spots for traffic congestion and jockeying for spaces that has sometimes caused illegal and unsafe parking along roads and other areas.
The road test for the vehicle reservation system would come after the pandemic forced several delays and changes at Acadia.
In a stunning move, the operator of the Island Explorer, Downeast Transportation, said last week it will indefinitely postpone Island Explorer bus service for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under state and federal social distancing guidelines, the popular buses could only carry 12 passengers each, compared to the normal 30 seated and 14 standing.
Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, stated that the indefinite postponement of the Island Explorer was his most difficult decision in two decades with the bus service.
Pandemic delays opening of Acadia
Also because of the pandemic emergency, the opening of the Hulls Cove Visitor Center in Acadia was delayed to June 1 this year, while campgrounds and the Seiur de Monts Visitor Center openings were delayed to June 15. No date was set for the opening the Park Loop Road, but it normally opens around the same time or a bit earlier than the Hulls Cove center.
In an April 17 press release announcing the delays, Acadia said that if the pandemic continues, it would evaluate the dates and possibly postpone them further.
Acadia has closed the Park Loop Road including Ocean Drive and all restrooms, carriage roads, campgrounds, visitor centers, and visitor services.
Kelly said people will not pay the reservation fee if they take the Island Explorer to a reservation area. The shuttle bus not does go up Cadillac. The park is looking at opportunities to provide alternative transportation to the Cadillac Summit when the reservation system is in effect, but 2022 is the earliest possible for that to be in place. The park also does not know if the alternative transportation to Cadillac will be fare-free or not.
Anyone who enters the park in any manner must also purchase and display a weekly, annual, or lifetime pass from May through October. This entrance fee is in addition to any possible fee at a reservation area.
A private, non-commercial vehicle pass, for example, costs $30 for 7 days, or $55 for 12 months, and admits all occupants, while a 7-day pass for a person with no vehicle costs $15. Youths 15 and under are admitted free of charge.