By Tim Rowland
A network of shuttles to help manage Keene Valley hiker traffic will not get rolling for at least one more year, due to the state’s fears that the buses themselves could become safety hazards.
At Essex County’s weekly Board of Supervisors meeting on Monday, Supervisor Shaun Gillilland said the state is “kiboshing the shuttles” because, while the four buses are at the ready, a plan for safely picking up and dropping off hikers and turning around on a busy State Route 73 is not.
Along with heavy seasonal traffic, major road work is planned on the highway this summer, which further complicates things.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation provided a written statement confirming that it will work with the local governments to create a shuttle system with restroom and parking in 2022 to “play a critical role in helping to manage sustainable visitation in the High Peaks.”
Gillilland said county and state officials rode the routes and talked over potential solutions, without success. “We were looking at all the different possibilities and trying to formulate a course of action for a reduced pilot shuttle program this summer,” he said. “It just didn’t work.”
The state budgeted $800,000 for managing traffic — both vehicular and foot — in the High Peaks this summer, which is anticipated to at least equal the record numbers of a year ago. That fund was to include the bus operation. Gillilland said he hopes the state will at least use the money to supplement front-country steward and hiker-education programs, and address infrastructure that would allow the buses to run in ensuing years.
The buses arrived last summer but did not operate because of the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve been sitting on a lot at the county’s transportation department ever since. The idea was for the state to fund the buses and pay for their operation, while Essex County would see to their operation.
“Essex County and the Town of Keene were ready to go, but the state was not,” Gillilland said after the meeting. “We kept running into roadblock after roadblock.”
Prior to the pandemic, Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said the buses were to run from the Olympic center at Mount Van Hoevenberg outside of Lake Placid to Frontier Town in North Hudson, stopping at popular trailheads along the way.
With the pandemic in full force, however, it quickly became clear that running buses of hikers visiting from all across the state and nation would be unwise.
This year, with COVID-19 protocols still limiting buses to half-capacity, it seemed a scaled-down version of the route — specifically from Marcy Field to Chapel Pond and the Ridge Trail up Giant Mountain — might be in order. The problem was that there was no suitable way to turn the buses around in the narrow and well-traveled Route 73 corridor without eating into precious parking areas. “The DEC was not happy about taking away parking spaces.” Gillilland said. “And the last thing we need is a bus to be stuck in traffic for 20 minutes.”
An adequate turnaround would require the removal of three or four parking spaces on each side of the road, Wilson said, which in itself would push more cars into the already overrun hamlet of Keene Valley.
But even if the hiker shuttles were to continue on Route 73 to a location with adequate turnaround space — which isn’t available until the intersection with State Route 9 — there are still no suitable pull-outs to serve as bus stops.
“The drop-off and the turnaround — all require using parking space,” Wilson said. “I hope we don’t stop trying, because the shuttle is going to be important. The solution is appropriate planning.”