DEC seeks two-year extension of hiker shuttle contract

The hiker shuttle, operated by the Essex County Transportation Department and supported by the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, is pictured here. (Provided photo — New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is seeking a two-year extension on its contract for the Route 73 hiker shuttle in the High Peaks.

DEC Public Information Officer Lori Severino confirmed on Wednesday, March 22 that the department is “in the process of executing” a two-year extension of its hiker shuttle contract — which expired this past December — with Essex County, which operates the service.

      However, exact plans for the hiker shuttle remain uncertain as the DEC and its shuttle partners — the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, the town of Keene and the county — analyze data from the shuttle’s first two years, according to Severino. The funding source for the shuttle contract — the state Environmental Protection Fund — allows the funding to be used for activities other than shuttle service, according to Severino.

      “Further amendment (of the contract) could re-allocate funds toward other activity that will ‘address issues of overuse in the Adirondack Park,'” she wrote in an email on Thursday, March 23.

      Last year’s Route 73 shuttle service was funded with up to $2 million from the EPF, according to the DEC. It’s unclear what other activities the DEC might use the funding for, if not for the shuttle service itself.

     The planned extension of the shuttle contract comes after the hiker shuttles saw low ridership last year, and as Essex County Public Transportation contends with a driver shortage. The hiker shuttle was created in 2021 as one piece of a broader plan to ease traffic safety concerns at overcrowded trailhead parking lots, especially along state Route 73 in the town of Keene, after decades of increasing hiker traffic to the High Peaks. The Route 73 shuttle picks up riders from the Marcy Field parking lot and stops at the Rooster Comb, Giant Mountain Ridge and Roaring Brook Falls trailheads. It complements a longtime shuttle provided by the town of Keene, which transports hikers to and from the Garden trailhead to the Marcy Field parking area.

But ridership on the Route 73 shuttle never really took off — the shuttle only ran for a few weeks in 2021 due to coronavirus pandemic precautions, netting less than 100 riders during that time, according to the Adirondack Explorer. The shuttle returned for a full season last year but only saw a total of 214 riders between July 16 and Oct. 10 of 2022, according to Severino. The hiker shuttle didn’t see any riders on 15 out of the 28 days it was in service last year. The DEC also piloted a special “leaf peeper” shuttle last year with the county, which netted 47 riders over the course of five days in service.

      Doreen Abrahamsen, Essex County Public Transportation coordinator, said her department — like many other employers across the North Country — has been struggling to fill out her fleet of drivers. The county has been looking at adding a new “shopper’s route” to its arsenal of regular routes to meet the demands of riders, but Abrahamsen said she can’t find the drivers to make it happen — a lot of her manpower is devoted to the state Route 73 hiker shuttle in the summer and ski shuttles to the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority in the winter.

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