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Parking fees may be required in Franconia Notch

August 04, 2021
FRANCONIA — Growing crowds and escalating parking mitigation costs could lead to parking fees in Franconia Notch as soon as next year.

Two years ago, the New Hampshire Parks and Recreation Department established a paid shuttle service to combat street side parking near the Lafayette Park campground. Yet, the operational expenses cost the department over $91,000 last year.

"We went from a few cars that would occasionally park on the street to over 400 cars parked illegally on the highway. Our biggest priority is the safety of the people in the park and on the highway while visiting New Hampshire. Something had to be done, but it's a challenging thing to enforce, even though it's a state highway," said New Hampshire Parks and Recreation Director Phil Bryce.

According to Bryce, a majority of the cars lining the narrow highway belonged to hikers and not paying attraction visitors. He noted that Franconia Ridge was a "bucket list" hike that drew outdoor enthusiasts from across the world.

However, by the time state officials celebrated the shuttle program in June 2019, the initiative was already in the red. During an awareness ceremony held on Jun 24, New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Commissioner Sarah Stewart announced losses of nearly $10,000 so early in the season.

In addition to the increased need for visitor safety, department economics is another critical factor that will likely lead to Notch parking fees. The New Hampshire Parks and Recreation Department is self-funded and does not rely on the General Fund for operation costs.

Statewide park fees cover all salaries and overhead expenses for the department. Bryce noted the shuttle was not operational this season because the department could not sustain such substantial financial losses at one park.

"When we started the shuttle system, it went pretty well. Everyone was good about it and kept their cars off the highway. The only problem was that we lost $59,000 that first year and an additional $32,000 running the shuttle. We anticipate there will be an additional $10,000 to $20,000 investment requirements each year in addition to running the shuttles," explained Bryce.

COVID certainly exacerbated the problem, as the state's park systems saw unprecedented use last summer. The highway barriers drove hundreds of hikers into parking lots intended for paid attractions, and the hikers added hours to their mountain-cresting goals.

If approved and implemented, the parking rates would allow the department to resume the shuttle service, which requires two vehicles and four drivers. But, more importantly, it would offset the losses and make such a program more financially sustainable.

Keeping the parking fees affordable was critical, said Bryce. When operating, the shuttle service costs $5 per person. Bryce noted that a parking fee of $10 per vehicle would be the equivalent of two hikers riding a shuttle.

Only two Franconia Notch parking lots would be affected; the Falling Waters Bridle Path lot on the east side of I-93 and the Lafayette Place lot to the west. Hikers could continue to gain direct trail access without adding hours to their day by parking at the two lots, noted Bryce.

"It seems fair, especially given that you have the convenience of parking right there where the trailhead is located. It would only be when the shuttles are operational on the weekends, helping cover the costs of running the shuttles.

"We charge $15 to park at the beach lots in the Seacoast region, so it's not an out-of-line number. I've seen $10 parking fees at flea markets. We're hoping that folks will support this plan; by paying for parking, these people will be directly supporting the safety of all Franconia Notch visitors," stated Bryce.

The New Hampshire Legislative Fiscal Committee approves all park fees and adjustments, and Bryce said he intends to seek the group's approval this fall. If approved, Franconia Notch visitors should expect to see parking fees at the two lots next spring.

"We're not running the shuttle now, and I think we can make it through the fall. So it's not critical for this year, but it is one of the key fees that we want to present to the Committee," noted Bryce.

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