State and local officials see demand for High Peaks shuttles, despite low ridership this year
By Gwendolyn Craig
Two hiker shuttle buses in the central Adirondack Park High Peaks saw low ridership in their late-season start, but state and local officials are hopeful the program can expand next year.
The two shuttles were part of different municipal programs–one longstanding and run by the town of Keene and a new pilot run by Essex County in partnership with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The Keene shuttle operates from Marcy Field to the parking lot for the Garden trailhead, for the Johns Brook Valley and beyond. The county shuttle starts at Marcy Field with several stops along Route 73. Both were free, though Keene used to collect $10 per passenger.
The ride programs got late starts this year, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic. Keene started picking up hikers in July, while the Essex County shuttle started service in late August. Keene’s 15-passenger van picked up 1,023 riders in that timeframe, while Essex County’s 20-passenger vehicle picked up a total of 85 riders, according to town and county officials.
“The shuttle ridership really pointed out what a unique summer this was,” said Joe Pete Wilson, supervisor for the town of Keene.
Wilson thinks there was an “incredible slowdown” in the hiking demand this year, between the Canadian border’s continued closure until Nov. 8 and other entertainment and tourist options reopening.
Katie Petronis, deputy commissioner of natural resources for the DEC, said High Peaks visitor numbers fell this year and parking spots were available many of the days the shuttle ran. Wilson said the town had to tow just one illegally parked car this season, a shock given that in a typical year the haul is several cars a week.
The town-run shuttle program is in its second decade of operation, though it did not run last year at the height of the pandemic. In 2018 about 1,600 took rides. The number rose to 3,235 in 2019, Wilson said.
Visitation to the High Peaks in Keene seemed to skyrocket in 2020, though the shuttle did not run. The first part of this summer, the town was “bleeding money” when it came to the shuttle, Wilson said, operating at about 25% of its capacity. Ridership picked up with a crescendo for Indigenous Peoples’ Day/Columbus Day weekend.
The Essex County shuttle “went OK” in its debut, said Shaun Gillilland, chairman of the county’s board of supervisors.
“(There were) a tremendous number of unknowns–COVID, visitors, would people take to it, rain on weekends,” Gillilland said, about the program. “It took a while to get traction, just like anything.”
“A lot of use is spread by word of mouth and we did a lot of collective outreach, working with the town, county, other state and local partners, for marketing and creating awareness and we saw a growth in the use of the shuttles later in the season,” Petronis said.
The state purchased four buses for the county shuttle program for just over $335,000. Only one was ready for prime time this season, but three more could be wrapped with the Adirondack Park motif on its sides and ready for hikers next year. Gillilland said the county and DEC still have to determine what their riding plans will be for next year.
Gillilland hopes the shuttle system will expand to other trailheads and hubs to help spread out hikers. Currently the shuttle makes stops at Rooster Comb, Giant Mountain/Ridge Trail, Roaring Brook Falls across the street from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve and back to Rooster Comb and Marcy Field.
Wilson said the town’s shuttle will continue operating next year, but he is in talks with Gillilland and the state about how to make a more connected transportation network as opposed to a patchwork system.
“We know that shuttle systems are the types of programs that grow over time,” Petronis said.