Future of Cannon Mountain tramway is uncertain and pricey
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, state tourism leaders, and Gov. Chris Sununu are backing a bill that would put $25 million into replacing the state’s 42-year-old Cannon Mountain aerial tramway. Tourism leaders want another tram, while Sununu wants lawmakers to consider a much smaller gondola.
What no one could tell the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday is where the state would find the $25 million to do either.
Senate Bill 55 is silent on the source of funding. So was Sununu’s letter to the committee Tuesday in support of the bill. His office did not respond when asked if Sununu planned to include the funding in the budget he’ll release next week.
“The last question that I have is, where’s the $25 million coming from since it’s not in this year’s budget?” Sen. James Gray, a Rochester Republican and committee chairman, asked Sarah Stewart, commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Any ideas?”
“That’s where we turn to the great minds in this room,” Stewart replied. “We brought it up, waving our hands, a couple of years ago to (the) Capital Budget (Committee) knowing that this was a big ask and a big consideration.”
Stewart said her department also questioned whether American Rescue Plan Act money could be used. “We haven’t been shy about making sure that decision makers with funding are aware of this,” she told the committee. “We turn to you via this bill for your consideration.”
The tramway was the country’s first when it opened in 1938. Then-Gov. John Winant charged a committee with finding the best spot in the White Mountains, and it chose Franconia Notch. The tram can carry 80 people to the summit in eight minutes.
The original tram was replaced about 40 years ago. Brian Wilson, director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, told the committee the cost of maintaining that tram is about equal to getting a new one.
“At some point you hit a point of diminishing returns with your car as it ages,” he said. “We feel that we’re at that juncture now.” Wilson said the existing tram will need replacing in the next three to five years.
In his letter, Sununu urged the committee to consider replacing the tram with a gondola that could hold eight to 10 people, saying it would be cheaper to build and generate more revenue because it would be faster and capable of transporting more people in a day. He noted too that visitors may feel more comfortable in a gondola than an 80-person tram car during winter when risk of respiratory illness is higher.
Wilson, Stewart, and regional tourism leaders discouraged the committee from considering a gondola, citing the tramway’s unique appeal and the additional costs of upgrading the towers and other existing structures to accommodate a gondola.
Wilson said the department has heard overwhelming preference from the public for a new tramway instead of a gondola.