TRENTON – US Sen. Angus King and the state transportation chief helped celebrate the start of construction of a new $32 million welcome center and transit hub, saying it could dramatically reduce traffic at Acadia National Park and transform the way people visit.
The Acadia Gateway Center, located off Route 3 in Trenton, is planned as a new regional tourism hub with 250 parking spaces and likely an express bus service into the national park. The center is aimed at getting more day trippers and commuters into the park’s fare-free Island Explorer bus service, thereby reducing congestion on Route 3 near Mount Desert Island and cutting traffic at Acadia National Park, the No. 5 most visited US national park in 2022.
The Acadia Gateway Center, scheduled to open in May 2025, overcame many hurdles during 20 years of planning and debate and it remains unclear how many tourists and commuters will choose to leave behind their cars and hop on a bus at the center. The project’s ultimate success could hinge on efforts to hire more scarce bus drivers to provide the express service and to boost affordable housing for drivers and other seasonal workers, people at the event said. Affordable housing is currently in such sort supply that 10 Island Explorer drivers lived out of their cars last year, according to the president of the Friends of Acadia.
The total project estimate of $31.66 million for the Gateway Center — as opposed to construction only — includes pre-construction work, according to a report in the Mount Desert Islander. Work before construction typically includes costs such as design, engineering and construction administration.
King, chair of the Senate subcommittee on National Parks, said the Acadia Gateway Center is a landmark project that can serve as a model for other national parks. People can park at the Gateway Center, get on a bus and enjoy Acadia without worrying about fighting traffic, pollution or the time it takes to find parking, said King, a Maine independent.
“The problem isn’t so much people in national parks,” said King at the event, attended by local, state and federal leaders. “It’s vehicles.”
Jump in visits fuels heavy traffic at Acadia National Park
The Gateway Center is a cornerstone of the National Park Service’s plan to manage parking and traffic at Acadia National Park, along with a $6-per-vehicle reservation system at Cadillac Summit that just started its third full year of operation.
Acadia logged about 4 million visits each of the past two years, more than 60 percent from 10 years ago. The crowds are so large at times during the season that many parking lots fill up by the early morning and some popular sites like the historic Bass Harbor Head lighthouse and Jordan Pond are plagued at times by traffic.
Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider said the Gateway Center is “an incredible asset” that will connect people to the national park in the best way possible – on the Island Explorer. “This is such an important service at getting visitors into Acadia National Park,” said Schneider.
The Maine Department of Transportation in early March awarded a $27.7 million contract to construct the Acadia Gateway Center to Nickerson & O’Day of Brewer, which also won an NPS contract to build a new $32 million maintenance facility at Acadia National Park. Construction started in early May on the Gateway Center, located on a 152-acre parcel on the the west side of Route 3, about three miles north of the bridge to Mount Desert Island and about 12 miles from the park’s current Hulls Cove Visitor Center, which will continue to operate when the new center opens.
Solar, electric chargers set for ultramodern Gateway Center
The national park welcome center and transit hub will be best in class with cathedral ceilings, a spacious plaza, huge windows, two main levels, and a new busway for the Island Explorer and commercial tour buses. It will also have geothermal heating and cooling, solar panels on the roof and an initial 17 charging ports for electric vehicles, said Bruce Van Note, commissioner of the MaineDOT.
“The first eight words of our mission at DOT are ‘to support economic opportunity and quality of life’,” Van Note said at the podium. “I cannot think of a project that does more to do that, all wrapped into one.”
Planning for the project began in 2002. The needed funding was long in doubt until US Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, announced a $9 million federal transit grant from the Trump administration during the heat of her ultimately successful re-election in 2020. In addition to money from the Federal Transit Administration, which is paying the greatest share, the National Park Service, the Friends of Acadia and the MaineDOT have provided financing for the project to reduce traffic at Acadia National Park.
John T. Kelly, management assistant in the superintendent’s office at Acadia National Park, said an increase in park entrance fees this year will also help pay for a planned expansion in Island Explorer service when the Acadia Gateway Center opens. Kelly said the center will likely include an express bus system into the national park with maybe one stop at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center in Bar Harbor. He said he thinks that every new visitor to Acadia will stop at the Gateway Center, helping relieve traffic at Acadia National Park.
When people stop at the Gateway Center, they will be able to go to the restroom, get information about the park, buy a park entrance pass, probably get a vehicle reservation on Cadillac Summit as well as Downeast tourism information about restaurants, retailers, services and lodging, Kelly said.
Federal Transit Administration Regional Director Peter S. Butler stated that the Gateway Center will provide an easy jumping-off point for millions of annual visitors to the park. He emphasized the partnerships that led to construction of the center.
“Today MaineDOT, in cooperation with Downeast Transportation, the National Park Service, the town of Trenton and the Friends of Acadia are advancing a project that will transform our transportation system while protecting our air, our water and our shared future,” Butler said.
Kelly, of the National Park Service, provided statistics on cost sharing for the project including $12.4 million from the FTA, $10.3 million from the state of Maine, $4 million from the NPS and $1 million from the Friends of Acadia.
While the event at the construction site was a celebration, people acknowledged in interviews that the operation of the new Acadia Gateway Center could face challenges. The center, which will be owned by the state of Maine, could be hampered by a global shortage of bus drivers and the high costs of seasonal housing for summer workers.
Bus driver shortage could persist at Acadia National Park
Kelly said the park expects the driver shortage to be lasting.
“It’s a serious situation that needs to be addressed,” Kelly said. “Drivers are the most important commodity for the bus system as it turns out.”
Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation Inc., which operates the Island Explorer, said he hired about 80 of the 120 bus drivers that he needed for a service plan this year. There will be Island Explorer service everywhere planned, but not as much as hoped, he said. Service will be pretty much the same as last year, but not exactly, he added.
“I think we will have a robust operation. It is not what we had originally planned.”
Murphy said there is a worldwide shortage of bus drivers and every transit system is looking for bus drivers at a time when unemployment is low. On top of that, there is a housing problem. “Not a lot available and what is available is outrageously expensive,” Murphy said.
The Island Explorer starts June 23 on Mount Desert Island, where most of Acadia National Park is located. The schedule for the Acadia shuttle was released last week.
Ridership on the Island Explorer is also down from pre-pandemic levels when it set a record in 2019 at 643,800, according to National Park Service statistics. Ridership was 413,929 in 2022 and 274,992 in 2021, when it operated with capacity and service limits during COVID-19. The bus system did not operate during 2020, the first year of the pandemic.
It’s unknown when the Island Explorer can attain pre-pandemic levels for ridership.
“We track almost exactly with the national trend,” Murphy said. “Ridership on transit is 66 or 67 percent of what it was pre-pandemic. That’s where we were last year as well.”
There are plenty of buses, just not enough people to put behind the wheels. The Island Explorer will operate this year with 32 buses that are less than 5 years old and another 10 or so as spares.
Island Explorer to demo electric buses this summer
Murphy said he is also working with the MaineDOT and the National Park Service to demonstrate electric buses this season. They are working with five manufacturers and each of the manufacturers will have a bus in the Island Explorer fleet for either one or two weeks at a time, spread across the season, he added.
“We’re excited about that,” Murphy said. “We’ve been inching toward battery electric for a while now.”
Kelly, the management assistant at Acadia National Park, said the NPS will finance 64 percent of the Island Explorer’s $2.8 million operating budget this year, with all of the park’s contribution coming from a portion of entrance fees, which were increased this year, with a 27 percent jump for an annual pass, to $70, and a 16 percent jump for a weekly pass, to $35. In addition, last September, L.L. Bean pledged through Friends of Acadia a total of $1.5 million over 5 years for Island Explorer operations. The FTA, MaineDOT, municipalities and passengers who donate on the bus also contribute to the budget, which has risen exponentially, Kelly said.
Eric Stiles, president and CEO of the Friends of Acadia, said the nonprofit is working with the Island Explorer and the park to rapidly address the lack of affordable housing, which is also affecting employers like Jackson Laboratory and MDI Hospital. The FOA this year, for example, purchased the Kingsleigh Inn in Southwest Harbor to provide housing for park employees.
Last year, Stiles said, because of the housing crisis, 10 of the Island Explorer’s 92 drivers lived in their cars for the entire season. The National Park Service offers 78 units for seasonal employees but requires 165, he added. “You can’t afford to work in the National Park to drive Island Explorers,” Stiles said. “We’re not alone in this.”