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