ACADIA NAT’L PARK — When Acadia puts in place a reservation system for private vehicles to enter some of the park’s most popular areas, now set to start in 2021, officials expect — and hope — more people will choose to ride the fare-free Island Explorer buses.
The park’s long-range transportation plan, which received final approval last spring, envisions an expansion of the Island Explorer system to accommodate more people and keep more private vehicles off the roads.
In anticipation of an increased demand, Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system, is trying to figure out how the system might need to grow, such as by adding routes or increasing the frequency of bus runs.
Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, said he has been working with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center, whose mission is “to anticipate emerging transportation issues and objectively address the nation’s most pressing and complex transportation challenges.”
“Even though Volpe is trying to give us a best guess of what our growth is going to need to look like, it’s hypothetical at this point,” Murphy said.
“It’s unlikely we will really know until the [park’s transportation] plan begins to be executed. But we’re trying to prepare for the biggest demand we might need to meet.”
Last year, Downeast Transportation took delivery of 21 new Island Explorer buses to replace ones that had been on the road beyond their life expectancy.
Murphy has ordered another seven new buses, which he expects to be delivered sometime this year. But he isn’t planning to get rid of all the old buses the new ones are to replace.
The main reason for that, he said, is uncertainty over how much the Island Explorer system will need to grow “and whether we can procure new buses fast enough to accommodate that growth.”
“So, we’re holding on to some of the buses that we previously planned to replace. There’s not a firm number on that yet.”
Starting next year, Acadia plans to require timed-entry reservations for private vehicles on the Cadillac Mountain summit road, the Ocean Drive section of the Park Loop Road and at the north parking lot at Jordan Pond. A portion of the fees charged for reservations will be used to fund the Island Explorer expansion.
Bicycle Express on hiatus
One change that is coming for the 2020 Island Explorer season is suspension of the Bicycle Express, which transports bikes and their riders from the Village Green in Bar Harbor to the Eagle Lake parking lot.
“It’s coming down for the season because there is going to be significant construction on the Eagle Lake carriage road for pretty much the entire [visitor] season,” Murphy said.
Acadia officials announced last month that sections of the six-mile long carriage road will be closed from time to time between April 15 and Nov. 15 as the road is “rehabilitated to improve and stabilize the road surface and associated features.”
Murphy said he is “pretty sure” the Bicycle Express will resume operation in 2021.
“But we need to find a new base for it,” he said. “It’s so successful that it’s become a burden at the Village Green. It has increased congestion there and created difficulty for us and the town. So, we need a new location from which to operate it.
“We’re not sure where that’s going to be,” Murphy said. “We’re hoping the town and the bike [rental] shops will help us figure that out because the majority of the Bicycle Express users come from the bike shops.”
He said no other significant changes are planned for the Island Explorer’s 2020 season.
The Island Explorer set another ridership record in 2019 with 647,098 passenger trips. That was an increase of 23,022 or nearly 2 percent over the previous record, which was set the year before.
However, the 2019 bus season was six days longer, ending Oct. 14. If the season had been the same length as the previous one, the increase in ridership would have been about 1 percent.
Becky Pritchard contributed to this story.