Acadia National Park is being overrun with automobiles. Several times this summer, park officials have shut down the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road to alleviate the glut of cars. A recent Bangor Daily News story outlined traffic and parking problems in the park’s most popular areas, and reported that Acadia is struggling to preserve a natural experience in the face of the onslaught.
The park draws an estimated 2.5 million visitors a year. Most of them arrive by car and expect to use their cars in the park. But Acadia has scheduled a handful of car-free days, where private vehicles are not allowed in the park for up to twelve hours.
Mount Desert Island has always had a problematic relationship with cars. There’s only one way on and off the island – something that wasn’t true of steamships, which could use any of the island’s several excellent harbors. John D. Rockefeller, whose family fortune came from oil, initiated construction of the network of carriage roads still used by hikers and bicyclists today. Cars were not allowed on the island at all until 1913, five years after Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line and ushered in the Age of the Automobile, in whose late stages we are now living.
National parks exist in tension between two worthy goals. One is to preserve land, particularly scenic land, in as natural a state as possible. The other is to ensure that the land is accessible to the American public – or, again, as large a segment of the public as possible. The car is a detriment to the first goal but a boon to the second. Not everyone can hike to the top of Cadillac, though perhaps more people should.
Like many year-round Mainers, I tend to avoid Acadia in the height of the tourist season (at least the most popular, MDI segment of the park – Isle Au Haut and even Schoodic Point are much less crowded). And like most of my ilk, traffic is the primary reason I stay away. The park’s problem with traffic is twofold: too many cars in the park, and too many visitors driving to the park. They are separate but related problems, with separate potential solutions.
An effective way to address the first problem would be an adjustment of park entrance fees. Currently, the cost to bring a vehicle into the park is $25, which covers seven days. It’s $20 for a motorcycle, and $12 per person. Pricing should incentivize alternatives: say, $50-75 for a car, $25 for a motorcycle, and $5 or even free for an individual. I’ll bet you would see a lot more people opting for a bicycle or the Island Explorer Bus, which is free but accepts donations, and allows you to hike from one trailhead to another without doubling back to your vehicle.
Some people balk at the very idea of fees to visit national parks. The museums along the Mall in Washington, D.C., for example, are free; signs explicitly state that they are supported by taxes and accessible to all Americans. But no one suggests that parking in the area should be free. Cars do not have rights, nor should they.
Acadia’s other traffic problem affects anyone who uses the roads in the surrounding area. Route 1A between Bangor and Ellsworth sees horrific accidents each year, and congestion every day of the summer. So why not simply widen the road? Because more road capacity encourages more people to drive, a phenomenon known as “generated traffic.” You can’t build your way out of traffic congestion. We’ve been trying that for the past hundred years, and traffic has only gotten worse.
We need alternative ways for people to get there. A light-rail line from Bangor to Bar Harbor is one idea. An along-the-coast ferry service, from Portland to Rockland to Mount Desert, is another. Regular and more frequent bus service, from Bangor and Portland, is yet another.
A few years ago, I discovered that you can take a bus from Bangor to Bar Harbor any weekday of the year for six bucks, round trip. It’s run by the Jackson Lab, and leaves the Odlin Road parking area at 5:15 every morning. Jackson Lab employees have first dibs on the seats, but the bus is open to the public. It arrives in Bar Harbor at 6:40 and leaves at 3:45. Unfortunately, it doesn’t carry bicycles.
Acadia’s traffic problems are America’s traffic problems, focused and in microcosm. We need to think beyond the car. Otherwise we might as well call it Acadia National Parking.