State had planned to hold off till ’22, but now wants to run one bus
By Tim Rowland
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Essex County hope to begin scaled-back version of their long-envisioned but stalled High Peaks hiker shuttle service next month, they announced.
The plan is for hikers to reach trailheads for popular climbs such as Rooster Comb and Giant Mountain by boarding a bus running from Marcy Field to the intersection of state Routes 9 and 73, commonly known as Malfunction Junction.
The state had previously decided to hold off until next year because of parking and safety concerns along Route 73, but now has decided to go forward with one bus instead.
The bus is one of four that the state purchased last year in hopes of alleviating chronic traffic and parking problems in Keene Valley. It would run on weekends from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., although the frequency could increase with the coming of fall foliage season.
The tentative targeted start date for the shuttle is the second weekend in July, said Essex County Supervisors Chair Shaun Gillilland.
Essex County Department of Public Works Director Jim Dougan said the county has an adequate number of drivers to handle the extra route, although the state put out a request for more drivers and front-country stewards in a public announcement issued Friday. The announcement said the state was still putting the finishing touches on resuscitating the program, and anyone interested in the jobs could contact the Town of Keene.
“We are closely collaborating to develop an effective, safe, and enjoyable system that benefits High Peaks communities and visitors,” the statement said. “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.”
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As originally envisioned, the four-bus shuttle would have been running regularly between the Van Hoevenberg sports center outside of Lake Placid and Frontier Town in North Hudson. The state was responsible for funding, the county for operations. But the coronavirus pandemic shut down the program last year, and this year it had been threatened by logistics, with no good turnaround spots on Route 73 to accommodate an abbreviated route.
The new proposal solves that by putting the turnaround at the 9/73 junction instead of at Chapel Pond. Adding turnaround space at Chapel Pond would have eaten up valuable parking spots, a circumstance that both state and county found unacceptable. At the time, there was a reluctance to run the bus several miles past the last trailhead with few if any riders, but ultimately that was deemed better than running no bus at all.
The new route, as planned, would be about an hour round-trip, Dougan said, with tentative stops at Adirondack Street and the Rooster Comb trailhead in Keene Valley, and trailheads at Roaring Brook and the Giant Ridge Trail. The schedule is also dependent on the viability of the town shuttle in Keene, which itself has been having trouble attracting drivers.
The state and county are also looking at building a better turnaround space at Malfunction Junction, and a safer pull-off area at Roaring Brook.
So far this year, however, the urgency of the shuttle initiative isn’t quite as intense as it was a year ago, when the outdoors was considered something of a safe haven from COVID-19.
“It hasn’t been this quiet in years,” said Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson, who said he’s heard the same thing from parks across the Northeast. Memorial Day weekend was busy, but unlike last year, lots such as Rooster Comb have been thinly populated.
Wilson said he suspects that as more venues open up in the post-pandemic world, the outdoors will have competition from movie theaters, restaurants and events. That could change as the season advances and particularly if the Canadian border opens later this summer. “That’s 40% of our traffic,” Wilson said.
Dougan said buses will apparently be able to operate at full capacity, although as of now, guidance still calls for the wearing of face masks.