Acadia National Park bus sets record ridership, eyes growth

Since it began operating in 1999, the fare-free Island Explorer has transported more than 8 million passengers while operating in Acadia National Park and surrounding communities. In 2019, the Island Explorer set another annual record for ridership, carrying 643,870 passengers, up 3.3 percent from 2018 and 55 percent from 2010, according to National Park Service Visitor Use Statistics. The Island Explorer buses, powered by propane, are partly financed by Acadia entrance fees, the Federal Transit Administration and LL Bean. Island Explorer service on Mount Desert Island operates seasonally from June 23 through late August, and at a reduced schedule through Indigenous Peoples Day in mid-October. It starts about Memorial Day weekend on the Schoodic Peninsula to coincide with the opening of the Schoodic Woods campground.

Executive director of Downeast Transportation

Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, stands next to the door of an Island Explorer bus parked inside a garage at the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton. (Photo courtesy Downeast Transportation)

Paul Murphy is executive director of Downeast Transportation, the nonprofit operator of the Island Explorer and other transit in Hancock County. Murphy, who started as operations manager in 2002 for Downeast Transportation, took up a range of issues with Acadia on My Mind, including plans for new buses, the routes, possible expansion of the Acadia National Park bus shuttle and suspension this year of an express service for bicyclists. Edited responses:

The Island Explorer does not provide a route to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the most popular attraction at Acadia National Park. We realize this decision was made before you started at Downeast Transportation. Why is there no service to Cadillac peak on the national park shuttle?

Paul Murphy: There are several reasons. A prominent one is that there are private operators who in large part make their living from taking people up Cadillac Mountain. It was a compromise at the time to keep those operators whole.

Second, it would require more robust braking and heavier duty vehicles. It has nothing to do with the propane engine. It has to do with the wear and tear on a vehicle climbing up and down the mountain all day.

Third, it would create demand that we don’t have the capacity to meet. It would be the single thing I can think of that would most impact demand.  We struggle to fund what we already have in operations.

How big are the Island Explorer buses and how many passengers do they carry?

Murphy: They are about 30 feet. We can put 43 passengers on a bus including 13 who would stand.

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Tansportation, which operates the Island Explorer.

The popular Bicycle Express is not going to operate in 2020. The Bicycle Express has operated between the Bar Harbor Village Green and Eagle Lake, where bike riders can access the Acadia National Park carriage roads.  During the express, each van pulls a trailer that can carry 16 bicycles. There have been two vans and trailers in service every day and they have run from 9 am to 5:30 pm constantly. The service is about 7 years old. Why will service be suspended in 2020?

Murphy: There are a couple of reasons. One is that the Eagle Lake Carriage Road is going to be under construction for most of the season. [The National Park Service plans a rehabilitation to improve and stabilize the road surface and other features. People should anticipate closures generally from one intersection to another from April 15 to Nov. 15.]

The other reason is that it has become untenable to base that service at the Village Green, both from our perspective and from the town’s perspective. We need to find a new starting point for it in town.

Why is it untenable?

Murphy: It is very successful. The bus stop there was not designed for that service. It creates a lot of congestion and a lot of moving parts in and around the bus stop and around buses. That is our issue with it. We think it creates a safety issue there. The town thinks it creates congestion and an overcrowding issue at that end. I have no argument with that either.

Do you think it will resume in 2021?

Murphy: If I had to guess, I would say yes. Right now, it does not have a home at the in-town end. I don’t have a strong candidate at the moment for that home. We’ll see.

Management staff of Downeast Transportation

Standing next to an Island Explorer bus are, from left to right, Neil Berthiaume, management assistant; Jodi Moore, operations manager; and Phyllicia Jordan, facilities and maintenance manager, all for Downeast Transportation. Even if the Bicycle Express is suspended for 2020, up to 3 bicycles can fit on the front rack and 3 on the back rack of a standard Island Explorer like this one. (Photo courtesy of Downeast Transportation)

What will happen without the Bicycle Express? Can people still put their bikes on an Island Explorer?

Murphy: Yes, all our buses carry 6 bicycles, 3 on the front and 3 on the back.

Last year, the Island Explorer celebrated its 20th anniversary with 21 new buses. Will you be receiving new buses this year for the Acadia National Park bus shuttle?

Murphy: We have ordered 7 new buses. They will not be here for the start of this season. Hopefully, they will start arriving during the season. We should have them all by the end of the summer, but we have not planned for them to be in service this season. They will begin arriving and I am sure we will weave them into service but we have not planned any additional service around the acquisition of those buses and we have not planned to decommission any buses for replacement prior to this season. We will weave them into service when we get them. We want to put miles on them as soon as we get them, so that If there are any bugs in them, we will get them worked out quickly.

How many total buses will that give you when you get the 7 new? Some of those 7 will replace other buses, right?

Murphy: It’s up around 40 now and there may be a net increase of 3 or 4. That’s just for Island Explorer.

The Island Explorer has 10 bus routes including the Schoodic Peninsula. The routes, including many with stops at Acadia hiking trailheads, hotels and other destinations, will remain the same for this upcoming season?

Island Explorer bus stop in Acadia National Park

This Island Explorer bus stop is on the same side as the Acadia Mountain trailhead, so you don’t have to cross busy Route 102 from the parking lot.

Murphy: Substantially, yes.

To relieve traffic congestion, Acadia National Park is planning a vehicle reservation system for cars on Cadillac Mountain, the north lot of Jordan Pond and the Ocean Drive corridor, according to a final transportation plan released last year. Once that reservation system starts, tentatively in 2021, will the Island Explorer be expanding service?

Murphy: We think so. There’s no firm plan for that yet but if you read the transportation plan, it envisions significant growth for the bus system. I think it makes sense that folks who are not able to get a reservation for their car will migrate to the bus system where they won’t need a reservation.

Will you need more funding for that expansion?

Murphy: Yes, we will.

How do you get that extra funding for the expanded service on the Acadia National Park bus shuttle?

Murphy: It’s a good and unanswered question at this point. The lion’s share of our funding comes from Acadia National Park and I think they believe they are going to need to step that up some. We get another pretty good chunk from the Federal Transit Administration. It may well be that we look to them for more funding as well, but first things first. We need to define a plan and then put a budget to that plan and then figure out how much additional we need and then start looking for sources.

The transportation plan notes that the season for the Island Explorer is limited by the availability of bus drivers including many who work for schools.  How will that affect possible expansion of the service?

acadia traffic

The Island Explorer is a critical part of the park’s final transportation plan. (Image courtesy of NPS)

Murphy: I don’t know. We have to wait and see.

Is it difficult to hire bus drivers now or the summer season?

Murphy: It’s not difficult to hire. We would probably like to hire a few more than we did this past summer, but we do OK.

What are some obstacles in hiring drivers?
Murphy: The economy is good. Employment is nearly full, so lots of people have full-time jobs. Young people aren’t getting commercial drivers licenses. Lots of reasons.
Do all drivers now need commercial licenses?
Murphy: Yes.

The first phase of the Gateway Center, located north of MDI off Route 3 in Trenton, was completed in the fall of 2011, according to the Friends of Acadia. Downeast Transportation stores buses at The Gateway Center, except for commuter buses at their end-of-day destination.

As part of the transportation plan, the park is hopeful of obtaining funding to construct an expanded NPS welcome center and theater, and post NPS staff at the Acadia Gateway Center. The center is located in a spot to intercept traffic on Route 3 before it reaches Mount Desert Island. Downeast Transportation also has a bus maintenance facility, a propane fueling station and administrative offices and those will all remain when the welcome center is developed.

At the planned welcome center, visitors who stop would find information about the National Park Service and area chambers of commerce, purchase park entrance passes, learn about commercially operated tours, learn about the park through historical and informational displays, park their vehicles, and ride Island Explorer buses.

Have you been involved in planning for the next phases of the Gateway Center?

Acadia Gateway Facility

The Acadia Gateway Center operated by Downeast Transportation, located on Route 3 in Trenton, north of Mount Desert Island.

Murphy: I have been involved in planning for that, just as a stakeholder. The Gateway Center was envisioned to be a welcome center for the park visitors and a place for them to stage motor coaches and visiting regional motor coaches and get folks out of those and into concessionaire smaller buses, a place to get people out of their cars and onto Island Explorer and for them to get information and purchase park passes. That will not be our facility. We may play a role in helping to staff that facility but it will not be a Downeast Transportation facility like the facility that is there now.

Is there an Island Explorer stop there now?

Murphy: Yes. The terminus of our Trenton route. There is a parking lot with a sheltered bus stop there from which Island Explorer departs on the transit route.

That bus runs from the Gateway Center to the Village Green in Bar Harbor and they can transfer from that bus onto a bus that will take them into the park.

If I am driving to Acadia now, I could drive into the Gateway Center, park my car at the Gateway Center and take the Acadia National Park bus shuttle if I wanted to?

Murphy: Lots of people do.

As part of the expansion of the use of the Gateway Center, will there be more people taking the island Explorer from the Gateway Center in the future?

Murphy: Yes. There will probably be another route or two. Once the transportation plan gets put into place and that facility gets built, there will be some significant changes to the system, I would think.

Three Island Explorer buses

Three Island Explorer buses are lined up outside the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton. (Photo courtesy of Downeast Transportation)

What are some examples of services provided by Downeast Transportation in addition to the island Explorer?

Murphy: We have year-round public transportation that we have operated since 1979. It basically takes folks from Bar Harbor to Ellsworth and back, takes folks to Bangor. We have service one day a week from Stonington to Ellsworth and back. We have in-town service in Bar Harbor, Bucksport and Ellsworth one day a week. We have commuter service that we operate in partnership with Jackson Laboratory that runs five days a week year-round with routes that originate in Ellsworth, Millbridge, Franklin, Bangor and Brewer and come down to Jackson Laboratory in the morning and go back in the afternoon. Those routes are all open to the public. They all have a fare component.

Do you use Island Explorer buses for those routes?

Murphy: Technically, there is no such thing as an Explorer Bus. They are all buses. They may be labeled Island Explorer and we do use some of our propane fleet year-round. The buses are almost all FTA funded and as such, they are not the exclusive property of any of our projects.

What kind of buses do you operate for the fare routes in addition to the propane-powered buses of the Island Explorer?

Murphy: We have other buses in addition to those. We have four motor coach type buses, which are 40-foot buses that are equipped for distance commuting and we have some smaller buses that are a combination of diesel or gasoline that operate on the shorter distance routes.

Thank you, Paul Murphy.

island explorer map

Island Explorer map helps get you around (Image courtesy of Island Explorer)

Friends of Acadia, the Maine Department of Transportation, local municipal appropriations, fees from businesses that receive front door service and passenger donations also contribute to funding for operating the Island Explorer.