New Plan for Cannon Tram and Another $15M to be Requested

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Paula Tracy photo

Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway in Franconia Notch State Park.


FRANCONIA – The state is looking to a new plan for the future of the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, with increased funding needed to keep the asset transporting tourists and skiers in Franconia Notch State Park.

In a letter to lawmakers, the commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Sarah Stewart, said she intends to include an additional $15 million in her capital budget request for 2026 and 2027 and go with a design-bid-build basis which may be more cost effective and may attract more bidders than design-build. This is on top of $18 million approved in the state’s current biennial budget.

The state only got one bid for the replacement of the tram this winter which was for far more than was budgeted. 

The bid was rejected. And the state went back to the drawing board.

In a letter to state Rep. Mark McConkey, R-Freedom, chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee and member of the Capital Project Overview Committee, Stewart explained her new approach to the matter and called it a “top priority” for state parks.

“We see the Tramway as a state asset, and we turn to you, the legislature, to decide if the tram should be part of New Hampshire’s future or be decommissioned. 

“A situation in which the tram was no longer part of our state parks enterprise system would have severe impacts on the state park fund which is how we manage to maintain a park system that is operationally self-funded,” she wrote.

In fact, the current Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway, with its red and yellow cars that go from the base of the notch to 4,080 feet is a cash cow that helps float the park system.

The Tramway supplements the ski lifts on Cannon Mountain and Mittersill in Franconia Notch State Park during the winter months, but it is primarily a spring-through-fall tourist attraction in the White Mountains region drawing over 100,000 visitors and generating $1.8 million in revenue annually, she said.

But at age 44 years, and within a few years of the end of its service life, Stewart said, the time is now to decide on what replaces it, if anything.

The first tram, installed in 1938, was the first tramway in North America. It was completely replaced in 1978-80 by the current tram. The work was done by the firm Nuova Aguido of Italy.

Stewart noted for context that back in 1980, the legislature appropriated $4.7 million at that time, which adjusted for inflation would be about $20 million today. 

The system components are showing fatigue, wear, and corrosion. 

“We work closely with the State Tram Board, our mechanic team, and the lift service provider Doppelmayr to ensure its safety, as that is our top priority,” Stewart stressed. 

In 2022, the department included $15.7 million in its Capital Budget request for replacing the Tramway and also included a request for $3 million for tramway lodge renovations as a separate priority to address interior and exterior work to the summit and base lodges of the tram including upgrades to fire and sprinkler systems and other life safety improvements. 

Neither of those requests was funded. 

In the 2023 legislative session, SB 55-FN-A, relative to making an appropriation of $25 million from FY 

2023 surplus for the replacement and repair of the Tramway was introduced. 

She said the DNCR supported the bill and using more current estimates in coordination with the Division of Public Works, the DNCR felt that level of funding would be sufficient. 

The state legislature authorized $18 million on June 30, 2023, in the state budget for maintenance and operation of the Tramway. 

Working with the Division of Public Works, DNCR issued a Request for Bids on Oct. 23, 2023, for a 

Design-Build project to replace the Tramway with new state of the art equipment. 

“Bidders were reluctant to commit to the terms of the Design-Build project. Only one bid was received for $33.3 million which was $29,035,000 for the tram base bid and $4,266,500 for an additional alternative for paint repairs to the steel structures at the base and summit terminals,” she wrote. 

With a significant gap in funding, the bid was rejected. 

“After further consultation with the DPW, the DNCR proposes to reapproach the process, but this time on a Design-Bid-Build basis to mitigate bidders’ concerns about the Design-Build format. The concerns were primarily related to the structural integrity of the three tram towers and pushing off responsibility of certifying their condition from the designer to the builder. This issue created ambiguity that one prospective bidder cited as reason to not submit a bid and likely increased the cost from the bid we did receive,” she explained.

Stewart said the DNCR and DPW are confident the existing towers are sufficient, based on recent testing done, which will be incorporated into the design specifications. 

“This process will require reengaging design services and we are actively working towards this approach. As part of a new contract, we anticipate a revised cost estimate. Please note that DPW requires adequate funding already in place before a project can be bid. Therefore, additional funds are necessary to move the project forward past design,” she said.

In February 2023, Gov. Chris Sununu was favoring a gondola as a replacement, despite department preference and others who said that they preferred the 80-passenger tram which is above the trees and gets a better view. You can see four states and Canada on a clear day and nearby Mount Washington, the northeast’s highest peak. It is also a bit of a novelty where many ski areas have gondolas, few have tramways.

The state has at the summit an observation deck with a 360-degree view, a cafeteria and washrooms.

Sununu, who was operating his family’s Waterville Valley ski resort before taking the helm in Concord, acknowledged the need for a replacement but urged “all” the alternatives be considered, “including the installation of an 8-10 person gondola that carries numerous benefits over the older tram model.”

“In addition to the savings on construction cost, a gondola would increase revenue, through its ability to bring customers to the summit faster,” Sununu wrote.

Stewart said the public has indicated it favors a tram.

It was pointed out that a gondola would be more inoperable than a tram during high winds and would require a whole re-do of the building, towers and cables which the plan for replacement tram cars and cables does not.

Stewart said Monday that the department plans to bring the new tram plan forward as a capital budget request.

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