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State officials want $25 million for new Cannon tramway, as Sununu pitches gondola option

NH Department of Natural & Cultural Resources
Cannon’s current tram fits 80 riders into its two red and yellow cars, known as Ketchup and Mustard.

Gov. Chris Sununu and top state parks officials are both asking lawmakers to spend millions to replace the aging tramway at state-owned Cannon Mountain, but they appear at odds over what sort of lift – tram or gondola –the state should install.

Tramways have conveyed visitors to Franconia Notch State Park to Cannon’s 4,080 foot summit since 1932.

Cannon’s current tram fits 80 riders into its two red and yellow cars, known as Ketchup and Mustard. Built in 1980 by the Italian firm Nuova Aguido, state parks officials say the lift won’t be operational within the next five years.

"The tram's primary systems, such as the cars themselves, the hanger arms, carriage trolleys, and the electro-magnetic componentry, the motor, and the braking systems need to be replaced," State Parks Director Brian Wilson testified Tuesday.

In a letter to the committee, Sununu acknowledged the need for a successor to the tram.

“Now is the time to make an investment,” Sununu said.

But Sununu, who, before becoming governor, ran the Waterville Valley Resort, which his family owns, also asked the committee “to consider all options and alternatives 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.

State Natural and Cultural Resources Commissioner Sarah Stewart told the committee Tuesday that she hadn’t seen Sununu’s letter, but did indicate familiarity with the governor’s point of view. Stewart also said public sentiment about a tram replacement is obvious.

“It was loud and clear to us from the public that the tram was what was desired,” Stewart said.

Senate President Jeb Bradley, an avid hiker who regularly summits Cannon by foot, appeared to favor building a new tram over Sununu’s gondola idea during Tuesday’s hearing.

At one point, Bradley asked Stewart and Wilson a series of questions that seemed intended to cast doubt on whether a gondola would be a good fit for Franconia Notch.

“Am I correct in assuming if there was a gondola, due to the winds coming over the ridge, that a gondola would not be able to run on as many days as a tram runs? Bradley asked.

“That assumption is correct,” Wilson answered.

“Would a gondola require major alterations to both the summit building and the base station building that a tram doesn’t require?” Bradley continued.

“Yes,” Wilson said.

Bradley also questioned if replacing the tram with a gondola would harm other state parks that rely on revenue generated by visitors the tram attracts to Franconia Notch State Park.

“Having a tram, the only tram in the state, is a major attraction.” Stewart said. “If we were only to have a gondola, we would have to lower the height of the ride significantly, potentially below treeline, which would also detract from the experience, therefore reducing interest.”

North Country politicians and people representing that region’s tourism industry echoed the concern that getting rid of the tram would put at risk the benefits they argued the tram provides year round.

“The tram has helped fuel our economy, providing millions of dollars in tourism spending and made the North Country's economy hum, “ said Charyl Reardon of White Mountain Attractions, a tourism marketing group.

But in his letter, Sununu defended building a gondola as a way for the state to cut costs and make money.

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

Sununu also pitched the gondola as more in tune with pandemic-era public health concerns.

"Visitors may feel more comfortable in a gondola with 8 to 10 people rather than a tramway car with 70 to 100 people during the height of respiratory illness season in the winter months,” Sununu said.

But all who testified at the hearing strongly backed the tram.

Several, including the bill’s lead sponsor, Littleton Senator Carrie Gendreau, a Republican, stressed its historical importance.

“The fact that it was even built was a tribute to the vision of a few men, and the foresight of the New Hampshire legislature,” Gendreau said.

North Country Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, meanwhile, asked lawmakers to act on behalf of the tramway again, and compared it to another, now departed presence in Franconia Notch.

“It is our responsibility to preserve this iconic structure; as much as it has been to preserve the memory of the Old Man of the Mountain,” Kenney said.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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