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Essex County prepares for launch of hiker shuttles

KEENE VALLEY — Essex County is on track to launch a new bus system to shuttle hikers to and from popular trailheads along state Route 73.

Funding for the new service, slated to launch this summer, was ultimately included in the state budget.

The Essex County Board of Supervisors authorized the purchase of four new, 24-passenger buses earlier this year — contingent upon the state allocating $1.2 million in funding for the service.

The buses are expected to cost no more than $400,000. The rest of the state funding will go toward the daily operation of the shuttles from around July through Labor Day.

The buses will run 16 hours a day and stop at all major trailheads on Route 73 during that summer period, Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland has said. In the fall, the shuttle system may be pared down to weekends and holidays. The shuttles will be free to ride.

The shuttles will likely work in two cycles: One will run from Marcy Field in Keene Valley north to the Olympic Sports Complex at Mount Van Hoevenberg, in the town of North Elba. The other will run from Marcy Field south toward trailheads where hikers can access the High Peaks and Giant Mountain wilderness areas.

The town of Keene already runs its own shuttle to the popular Garden trailhead, but town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. said last week that the town would suspend that service until further notice, citing concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and the Adirondack Mountain Club are expected to help advertise the shuttle and communicate how it works to hikers.

The state’s $1.2 million investment will only fund the shuttle system’s first season of operation. It’s unclear if the county would receive funding again next year to continue the program, but Gillilland has said the county will nevertheless have use for the buses: With the Winter World University Games (also known as Winter Universiade) set to land in Lake Placid in January 2023, the county will likely need the extra capacity to accommodate the expected influx of visitors. The games are expected to attract around 2,500 student-athletes to the area.

The new funding from the state comes on the heels of a difficult summer for the small town of Keene.

An influx of hiker traffic along the Route 73 corridor stretched the town’s limited resources, at times overwhelming the town’s available staff and Garden shuttle. The increased amount of foot traffic coincided with a roadside Route 73 parking ban the state put in place this past May.

The parking ban was intended to improve pedestrian safety along the corridor, which boasts some of the most popular trailheads in the High Peaks region. But on peak weekends, legal parking spaces filled up in the early morning hours, prompting confusion and frustration as visitors arrived to hike but had nowhere to park. Some hikers chose to park illegally, and some of them were ticketed by state forest rangers. Others parked further away and walked in groups along the roadside — one of the things the parking ban was intended to prevent.

The town of Keene issued a call last month asking nature seekers from out of town to stay home and hike closer to where they live, rather than travel to visit the Adirondack High Peaks. The county Board of Supervisors added to that request shortly afterward with a call for downstate residents to stay home and refrain from visiting this area, in part because of local hospitals’ capacity and supply limitations.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is encouraging those who do venture out to hike to continue practicing social distancing.