Monday, January 22, 2018

State’s Frontier Town Plan Missing Key Transportation Piece

frontier townLast Thursday the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) approved New York State’s plan to build a 91-site camping, equestrian and day use area at the site of the former Frontier Town in North Hudson.

This is the first part of a multi-part strategy to develop the entire site into a gateway with a mix of private and public amenities, businesses and recreational assets.

The overall plan is spelled out in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC’s) Upper Hudson Recreation Hub Master Plan.

Note the word “Hub:” the DEC and the organizations involved in planning the project understand that the Frontier Town site is perfectly situated to be a hub that leverages the outstanding range of surrounding recreational opportunities.

Although I have issues with the details and cost of the plan, I applaud this kind of thinking. In fact, before I even knew the State had grand plans for Frontier Town I wrote a column arguing for its redevelopment. However, I’m surprised that nowhere in the plan has the State addressed the bigger opportunity: to create a world-class transportation hub.

It is hard to see how the Adirondacks lack recreational opportunities. On the other hand, transportation problems lie at the very heart of almost all of the economic, environmental and diversity challenges the region faces. The Frontier Town redevelopment could offer a state-of-the-art response to many of these problems. What we need in order to get there is not traditional approaches like campgrounds and visitor centers, but forward thinking on an intelligent transportation network. There’s no need to be shy: developments in electric vehicles (EVs), self-driving cars, ride-sharing services and on-line information systems are redefining the transportation landscape, and doing so at a staggering pace.

First, we need to recognize the importance of the opportunity. Suppose you are one of the millions of people in New York City who don’t own a car. You’ve heard about the Newcomb area, with High Peaks, an historic ghost town, a restored Great Camp, a chain of lakes for canoeing and wild Hudson River whitewater to boot. How do you get there? The short answer is you don’t.

What if you have a car but it’s not reliable enough for a trip that will take you many miles from emergency services or a mechanic? What if you have a reliable car but not the significant disposable income needed to cover the gas, tolls and other costs of a five hundred mile trip to the Wilderness? Don’t think for a moment that these questions don’t matter: I’ve just described the vast majority of New Yorkers.

Even for people who have cars and the means to drive long distances – indeed, even for people who live here – the Adirondacks’ size, terrain and lack of population pose continual barriers to the simple act of getting around. There are few options for ride-sharing, car-pooling, taking a bus, or even trying to be a one-car household. But thanks to rapidly-evolving technology, new solutions are at hand.

Consider for a moment a young family that wants to do some fun things in the Adirondacks. They want to hike, climb a fire tower, do some canoeing and maybe even try whitewater rafting. They’d love to camp. They live in Brooklyn, they have modest income and no car. They have sleeping bags but not a tent or other camping gear they need.

Now imagine that there is an intelligent “Visit Adirondacks” app (“VA app”) that can accept all these requests plus any other information the family enters. Essentially, the app is experiential: it can take as input desired experiences and constraints such as dates, a budget or a lack of a car and it can output doable alternatives (this experiential focus is very much in keeping with current travel trends, especially among younger and more diverse travelers). In this case the VA app recognizes that a visit to the Newcomb area fits the bill and it generates a few possible itineraries.

Now suppose that the Frontier Town Gateway exists, conveniently located on the Northway, with easy automobile access from New York, Boston or other points east. Of course our Brooklyn family has no automobile. No problem! Several bus lines make a stop there.

Better yet, Amtrak runs from Penn Station to Port Henry, where an electric shuttle waits to take visitors to Frontier Town, a mere 18 miles away. This shuttle runs a one-hour loop route, 6 times per day, that also takes passengers to Route 73 at the Northway, where a connecting Keene shuttle can ferry them to stops anywhere along Route 73, all the way to Lake Placid. The Port Henry shuttle also serves the Sharp Bridge state campground in its loop.

At Frontier Town there is a campground, a motel and an outfitter that sells or rents equipment. The VA app automatically makes reservations for the train, shuttle, outfitter rentals and desired lodging. Now our young family has an easy route into the Adirondacks and they’re all set for their adventure.

In the morning a second shuttle takes them to their first destination, Goodnow Mountain. This shuttle runs a two-and-a-half-hour loop along Blue Ridge Road twice per day, making stops at Elk Lake, Boreas (Gulf Brook Road), Upper Works, Newcomb, Cloud-Splitter Outfitters, SUNY ESF and Goodnow Mountain.

The two electric shuttles each have a range of more than 100 miles, thus are able to complete their loops without recharging. Between loops they reload their batteries at charging stations installed at Frontier Town. The bank of ten stations includes two DC Fast chargers, one of which is dedicated to the shuttle fleet. It can recharge a shuttle in less than 15 minutes, thus allowing continuous coverage of the shuttle routes with zero use of any other fuel and zero emissions.

The other charging stations are available to the public at no cost. They are also available for Uber and Lyft drivers who might use EVs. Uber and Lyft are integrated into the VA app, offering yet another potential mode of transportation (not to mention income opportunities for local residents).

For visitors who are willing to spend more for increased flexibility and freedom over a shuttle, there is a fleet of five EVs based at Frontier Town which can be reserved and used, each with a 250 mile or better range, thus putting any Adirondack destination within reach. Use of these EVs is half the price of a typical rental car, with no fuel cost, and they are integrated with the VA app, thus preprogrammed to navigate drivers to any destination on their itinerary.

What’s more, when demand is low the EVs are available free to Park residents who can use them for their own transportation needs.

The initial fleet of five EV’s is added-to as demand increases, with each added EV paying for itself through the rental fees that visitors pay. Within a few years, self-driving EVs are added to the mix. Now visitors or residents can be taken anywhere they desire, whether round trip, one-way, or remote pick-up, after which the EV can drive itself back to its starting point or on to the next pick-up.

Even the parking/overuse problems everyone is talking about on Route 73 can be addressed by this kind of hub. With convenient shuttles, ride services and even self-driving EVs, visitors can choose to leave their vehicle at Frontier Town (or any shuttle stop) and avoid parking problems, thus reducing demand. This option is facilitated by the VA app which on a near-real-time basis can tell visitors where parking problems exist and what alternatives might fit their needs.

“Fantasy,” many of you will no doubt opine. Nonsense. Every part of this plan can be done today, except for the self-driving EVs and those are coming: GM just announced that their self-driving Chevy Bolts, which have neither gas pedal nor steering wheel, and which are testing on the road now, will be in commercial production in two years. The rest is here now. I myself drive an EV all over the park and charge it at night. The electric shuttles as described exist today. Charging stations are easy installs.

The Visit Adirondacks app, which sounds so ambitious, is not a difficult build, with similar apps already in abundance. In fact the Adirondack Atlas, the wonderful project of our own John Warren, is already halfway there. Best yet: this kind of project scales. The State can begin modestly and build incrementally, generating and meeting demand in an economic cycle that will actually benefit the economies of our towns. Imagine having a legitimate channel to market to the millions of New Yorkers who will never take a driving vacation to the Adirondacks but would love to come if only there were a practical way.

“This would cost too much money, the State could never afford it,” others will say. But this is wrong too. The Governor’s original Frontier Town announcement pledged $32 million for the project. The just-approved campground is a $13 million development all by itself. But the entire transportation system I described in my scenario could be implemented for less than a million dollars. And the ongoing costs would save a ton of money in the long run because all this EV technology is a fraction of the cost of similar infrastructure for gas or diesel technology. Moreover, EV fuel costs are a fifth of gas costs, even with our depressed gas prices, and maintenance costs for EVs and their fueling infrastructure are ten times less than for internal combustion vehicles.

Finally, for those who think this is ahead of the curve, I suggest picking up a newspaper. Ford is investing $11 billion to put 40 electrified vehicle models on the road by 2022.  Volkswagon is investing $40 billion. Infiniti just announced that it is going all-electric, as Volvo already did. Toyota is racing to the next battery breakthrough with a plan to dominate the market. All these companies are committed to installing charging infrastructure across the country. The electric age is here. The issue is in fact whether our region, which so acutely needs modern transportation solutions, will once again be well behind the curve. We don’t have to be. There are simply no barriers to this kind of approach right here in the Adirondacks.

Finally, remember the biggest prize of all: in a region that stands to suffer terrible damage from climate change, including the loss of our critical winter economy, this is a zero-emission solution that would be a credit to a Park which already stands globally as an exemplar of human interdependence with the natural world.

New York State has many phases ahead for the Frontier Town project. For all I know they may be planning the very thing I’m describing. But if they aren’t they need to jump on board the 21st century express and give this Park a transportation hub that can and will be a difference-maker.

Photos: the former Frontier Town site, courtesy Carl Heilman II.  Potential shuttle routes, courtesy Google Maps

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




27 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Pete,

    Don’t assume every city-slicker who wants to come up to visit knows how to drive! Or do anything else in the backcountry for that matter. All of your ideas sound fine, but I would recommend working a well-rounded, affordable guide service into the idea. I am not talking technical rock/ice climbing guides, but simpler stuff like Old Mtn. Phelps. It is my firm belief that guides/naturalists for basic hiking, riding, skiing, fishing, camping, paddling, etc., would impart a great deal of knowledge to newbies of all sorts. I am not saying making it mandatory, but making it cheap and easy. Let the guides do the driving and outfitting. They can also guide the newbies to lesser-used areas that may offer a better quality experience in the long-run. They will be safer, and get basic backcountry education all day long.

    We seem to forget the very important role guides played in the early ADKs – for information, safety, and transportation. Perhaps finding a way to make it more affordable and practical to hire a licensed guide or naturalist would ultimately be a better way to spend state funds than simply making it easier to get here. Guides can drive and know the roads and conditions well. The few times I have hired guides around the country allowed me to learn much more about an area or activity than I could on my own. It really lowers the learning curve and keeps people, wildlife, and resources much safer.

    • Paul says:

      You are onto something here, not sure about the practicality of it at any scale.

      When I was a kid I used to “guide” folks that stayed at the cabins next door to the house I grew up in on the lake. Took them mostly fishing but some hiking too. Made a pretty good summer wage. Today I would be sued if something happened since my training was the old fashioned way not they way they do it now. “Clients” never cared if we didn’t catch anything it was all about the experience!

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Boreas:

      I agree wholeheartedly. If you were to read my column of a couple years ago with my initial Frontier Town proposal, you would see that I explicitly propose a guide service as part of the mix of amenities. It just wasn’t the focus of this article.

      Pete

      • Boreas says:

        Pete,

        It is a shame guides are not the FIRST thing that comes to mind for a newbie to the backcountry. In the 19th and early 20th century, relatively few people ventured into the backcountry without a guide. What happened?? Mass media. Marked trails, guide books, then the internet, then smart-phones. Mass media created mass problems. Not enough attention is paid to backcountry knowledge, skills, and preparedness.

        Many countries, including Canada, require guides for certain activities in certain areas. Perhaps we should take their example.

        • Paul says:

          Most of them wanted a guide to help them hunt or fish. Most pictures you see of guides and their “sports” included what they caught and/or what they shot. Not as many people do those activities these days (at least relatively speaking).

          • Boreas says:

            I believe that if affordable backcountry guides were commonly available – and PROMOTED by the state and local communities – they would be busy. Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, skiing, snowshoeing, paddling, etc. all require expenditures for equipment. First time newbies to various activities are reluctant to plop down $1000-2000 on equipment or rentals they may never use again if they have a bad experience. A good guide service can take a lot of the apprehension out of their first experiences by providing most everything they need. They can also make sure they have a safe experience and impart knowledge along the way.

            We are always shaking our heads and wondering WHY so many people go into the backcountry lacking knowledge, skills, and basic safety gear. While they may not want to drop $1000+ on good gear and do the necessary research to do their activity safely, they may be willing to spend $300-500 for a paid teacher and use of their gear for a day – especially if they don’t have to drive and figure out where to park.

            There are currently excellent licensed guides that perform these functions, as well as birding guides, paddling guides, etc., but they are often under the radar because they cannot afford to promote themselves and advertise their services. Why couldn’t NYS or local communities train and promote their own local guides? On the surface the expense may not seem to offer a good return on investment, but not only can it draw people into regions looking for tourism dollars, it educates these people and should cut down on Ranger searches, rescues, and recoveries. It is hard to put a dollar figure on that and the protection it would afford the environment. Just a thought.

  2. Paul says:

    It’s a cool idea but it seems like a solution searching for a problem. Diversity is a different issue, but it seems like visitor numbers are not a problem and continue to rise. Enforcing parking restrictions or limiting hiker numbers in areas where there is too much use seems like a much simpler and more economical course of action. The thing that surprises me about diversity is that we are so close to such a huge diverse population (many of whom have the means to get to the Adirondacks w/o needing a cheaper, and it might not be any cheaper anyway, way to get up here and they just don’t come? They don’t need to fly from some distant land to get here, just drive a few hours (in a hybrid or an electric car if that’s an issue).

  3. John says:

    Pete — This is not only a good idea, but a necessary one. Every weekend, there are long lines of illegally parked cars crowding the roads in the High Peaks. And for years we have heard the APA, environmental groups, local officials and who knows what else argue about driving and parking to and around the Boreas Ponds and the Chain lakes near Newcomb. Settle the issue. Forget the rental cars! No parking! Instead take a shuttle and load your canoe on the trailer. Ride in at 10 and out at 4. Or stay overnight; your gear goes with you in the shuttle.
    Sure, someone needs a sharp pencil and strong will to make it work. But it’s worthwhile: the Adirondacks ought to welcome people, but not their vehicles.

  4. Tim Rowland Tim Rowland says:

    Interesting, last night I was reading a newspaper piece describing how all the people in New York City have heard of the Adirondacks and want to travel there, but no one has the means to do it, or even if they do, no idea how to go about arranging it. The piece was written in 1859.

  5. Barbara Connor says:

    This will not help the economy of Schroon Lake & the surrounding towns. Most of these jobs will be held State workers. The money made will be collected by the state. Very few private investors will be making the $. Look at local state parks in the area. The $ goes to the state & not the starving towns.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Agreed, if you are referring to the camp ground. But if people can get where they want to get in orrder to meet theirr experiential desires, that’s a different story.

  6. Pete,

    Nice comprehensive thinking.

    The state’s assumption on this development seems to be “if you build it, they will come.” I’m not so sure about that , but your ideas do add to the practicality of the scheme.And I’m sure you’ve noticed that there is space on the property for a pv solar array to power the ev chargers.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      David:

      I also think the “if you build it they will come” argument is too facile. I’m not thrilled with the choice of expenditures in this current plan and I have agreed with others that another campground is not much of a solution, but the equestrian piece is well-thought-out, the frontier theming is smart, and it may make for a fairly busy destination. We’ll see. Still, your concern is why I think an integrative transportation piece is essential.

      As to solar panels, you betcha! There is no reason, with the current state of the energy market and of technology, that this project should be anything other than 100% green.energy.

  7. Carole mosher says:

    Excellent article and I appreciate that you not only call out the short omings of the plan but that you also offer solutions. I hope the folks that can do something about it will listen to you.

  8. Dick Carlson says:

    New York State’s warm season tourism development in the Adirondacks is mainly campgrounds and allied day use areas. These are open just 3 months (Memorial Day to Labor Day). The Adirondacks need more comprehensive year ’round tourism possibilities. Lake George sits essentially idle all winter with more than half of hotels closed – employees simply wait for the next Summer. Gore Mt. sits idle all Summer with anemic warm season activities and attractions. Frontier Town is just another 3 month venue that we do not need. Maybe the Paradox Brew Pub will take the sting out of this $32m boondoggle.

    • Scott Thompson says:

      Like” the Adirondack Rail Trail” There is too much support, subsidized re construction, dedicated equipment for maintenance, ancillary transportation and (the biggie) an operator no matter how many are using, necessary to make the railroad work even if people were to ride (?). Where it would be much easier to take advantage of year round independent users of this entirely new venue.

  9. Dave Hancox says:

    You wrote a good article, Pete. Plus, you raised a lot of interesting ideas that should be explored.The goal should be to make the Adirondacks a year-round destination. It already is for some of us who enjoy the four seasons. I also like the idea from the comments to have year-round guides who can show people areas they may never have considered but meet their needs.

  10. Al Pouch says:

    I hope this idea gets presented to the state.

  11. Jon says:

    I would be interested to see a comparison to some of the services offered by our national parks. I’m thinking of Acadia in particular because I’ve been there, but they offer a free shuttle service to residents and visitors alike throughout the park.

    Acadia sees around 3.3 million visitors annually (about the same as Lake Placid) and if the HPW is the primary destination for most travelers to the ADK’s, the eastern region is less than twice the size of Acadia. It wouldn’t be a bad trial area to start with to see how the demand is for such a service. I understand there are economic concerns and of course there’s a lot of data to be researched, but the investment for half a dozen shuttles wouldn’t likely be absurd if they’re already building a “hub” and have funds secured for it.

    I know this doesn’t solve the transportation issues from areas like NYC or WNY but it could help to determine the demand for expanding infrastructure to eventually support longer distance transportation needs. I’m also not suggesting that said program would need to be free in the ADK’s and mirror Acadia, but it’s a concept that is worth investigating.

    Just some thoughts.

  12. Wayne Ouderkirk says:

    FANTASTIC IDEAS!!!! I hope the planners and policy people read this.It should be circulated widely.

  13. Paul says:

    This should be a private enterprise. The state usually only takes on these kinds of things because they are not economically viable. The state should spend its money on larger infrastructure projects not campgrounds. Or spend the money on Scott’s proposal to hire more NYS forest rangers that are so badly needed?

  14. Bob Meyer says:

    Vision with practical solutions to the issues.
    This is a well thought out plan of action.
    Way to go Pete!

  15. Keith Gorgas says:

    Deprived of a cohesive integrated mass transit system for decades, many Adirondackers can not even envision the concept and imagine it as something that is a relic of the past. AMTRAK ridership is at an all time high, and around the country and around the world, large investments in mass transit are paying healthy returns. Numerous studies conclude that Millennials prefer intermodal mass transit as a low carbon footprint means of transportation. We need a North Country wide comprehensive mass transit plan

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