The parking crunch in Franconia Notch last October, 2017. Photo courtesy of NH DOT. (Courtesy Photo — NHDOT) (click for larger version)
July 11, 2018FRANCONIA—For some years now, hikers and sightseers in the Notch have parked along the side of Interstate 93, from which they can easily access the trails, lakes, and sights of Franconia Notch. The congestion has sparked a change in state and local policy, which could change the way people access the Notch in the near future.
On the most popular summer weekends and holidays, the Notch can be packed for miles with cars, parked bumper to bumper from Lincoln to the slopes of Cannon Mountain. Long habit and the weight of a decade or more's experience, has conditioned visitors and residents to park alongside the long and windy corridor, regardless of law or safety.
Federal, state and local authorities are organizing to change that, by a deliberate reinforcement of parking laws in the Notch. Warning signs have already been posted in the Notch, and informative flyers have been prepared for distribution onto car windshields. In the first year, the goal is be to inform the public and change habits, state and local officials told the Courier.
State Department of Transportation Public Information Officer Bill Boynton observed that enforcement has been relaxed for some time, but that the letter of the law was clear: "By definition, there's no parking on an interstate."
He acknowledged that creating new parking could be expensive—on the scale of tens of thousands of dollars per space, by his reckoning — but insisted that the current state of affairs created intolerable safety and liability issues:
"Our perspective is the safety of the highway," he said.
The exact legal responsibility in the event of a serious parking-attributed accident would be complex, thanks to the tangle of federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Needless to say, no governmental body wants to test the issue in court.
Franconia Police Chief Martin Cashin agreed that safety was motivating the crackdown, and observed that the problem has grown in recent years.
"To do nothing is to raise the possibility of a serious accident," he pointed out.
He acknowledged that increased parking enforcement could have an economic impact if not handled carefully, and said he would take a gradual approach that emphasized education first.
Consulting with the Franconia Select Board Monday, he expressed concern about the additional officer-hours that would be required to police the Notch, which could amount to four hours per day, a significant increase in duties for a department with a total of four and a half positions.
Lincoln and Franconia will work to establish a uniform policy, so that hikers north and south of the town line will receive equal treatment.
The Franconia and Lincoln Police Departments would be called upon to write the bulk of tickets, if enforcement tightens in earnest. State Police are empowered to enforce parking rules, but typically defer to local authorities. In most ordinary cases, parking ordinances are local—enforcement along the Notch could require an addition to the Franconia ordinance.
Behind the push to reduce parking, there is a multi-sided tug-of-war—not all interests are served by reduced parking. As a singular recreational resource, the Notch benefits from easy access—and creates welcome traffic in downtown Lincoln and Franconia.
As a result, recreation and economic interests are hesitant about a crackdown, and are urging a cautious, measured approach, so as to not drive away visitors.
"The overwhelming popularity of Franconia Notch State Park is a testament to the natural beauty and outdoor recreational activities New Hampshire has to offer," said Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs.
He added that "As visitors enjoy our parks over the holiday week and throughout the summer, we strongly encourage parking in designated areas and remind them that it is unsafe and illegal to park along Interstate 93."
On the other hand, the Notch is a key artery for travel and transportation, and demands a clear, safe route for goods and drivers. In 2018, there have been at least three major accidents which disrupted traffic—two of them attributable to bad weather, but all of which illustrate the route's vulnerability.
The Franconia Notch parkway has always walked a fine line—its unusual, eight-mile singe lane design required a special act of Congress to enable. Unlike Crawford Notch, the Franconia pass never hosted a railroad. It sparks strong, protective emotion from loyal locals.
Parking lots are available at trailhead parking, such as the Liberty Springs, Old Bridle Path, and Lafayette Place entrances. The aerial tramway also has some limited hiker parking, but the best new prospect is the Peabody Slopes gravel lots, at Exit 34C off Route 118, which has been entirely opened to hikers, as part of the collective push to resolve the problem. It is a few miles distant from some trailheads, but has practically unlimited spaces.