Grant to fund second phase of Acadia Gateway Center

TRENTON — The Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) has received $9 million in federal funding to complete Phase 2 of the Acadia Gateway Center off Route 3.

Phase 1 of the project was completed in 2012. This included the construction of a bus maintenance garage, a Park-and-Ride lot and a propane fueling station for the Island Explorer and Downeast Transportation buses. Phase 2, to be completed by 2023, will involve the construction of an information center to be staffed by the National Park Service and Maine Office of Tourism.

“During typical summer months, Maine’s public bus systems have successfully reduced traffic congestion, providing visitors with the best experience possible while preserving and protecting resources for local residents,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, in a statement announcing the grant. The funding will “improve the visitor experience at Acadia National Park,” she added.

The Gateway Center project stalled after the first phase as the MDOT sought additional funding sources. The Mount Desert Islander reported last year that the center was listed in the MDOT work plan for 2020-21, but the agency did not have enough funding to pay for it. Eight years ago, the Federal Transit Administration set aside $3.8 million for the project. In 2012, the estimated cost to build a 13,000-square-foot visitor center was $12.5 million.

In June, U.S. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) joined Collins in writing the transportation secretary a letter to support the funding of the Acadia Gateway Center, which they wrote would “benefit the local and state economies, as well as address severe transit deficiencies in the region,” improving traffic congestion and safety.

According to John Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park, the expanded Acadia Gateway Center will sell park entrance passes and provide information about the park and Island Explorer bus system, as well as regional and state tourist information. There will also be a gift shop run by Eastern National, a park concessioner.

“Day users can park for free and get on the bus,” Kelly said in an interview with the Islander in December. He expects the Island Explorer bus system to be in higher demand when the reservation system for private automobile access to high-use areas in the park begins in 2021. “They’ll have the option to ride the Island Explorer to that place without a reservation,” he said.

The Island Explorer set a ridership record in 2019 with 647,098 passenger trips. The 2020 season has been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

Kelly said the $9 million from the federal government will help get the project closer to completion. “With this funding, we’re very close,” he said, noting also that the National Park Service will contribute 17 to 18 percent of the project cost.

MDOT spokesman Paul Merrill said he expects the National Park Service’s contribution to be $4 million. MDOT has already received $1 million from Friends of Acadia. Efficiency Maine will cover the cost of installing electric vehicle charging stations at an estimated cost of $65,000.

If all the funding sources come together as expected, he said, MDOT will begin final design for phase 2 this fall.

“Construction will occur in 2021 to 2022, and the building will be open for business for the 2023 Island Explorer season,” Merrill said.

Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.

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