BAR HARBOR — L.L. Bean has pledged $1.5 million to support operation of the Island Explorer bus service over the next five years, Friends of Acadia announced this week.
That is a 50 percent increase over the company’s previous annual contributions.
This is the fifth time the Freeport-based outdoor retailer has committed funding for the bus system, bringing its total contributions and pledges to $5.5 million since 2002.
The fare-free, wheelchair-accessible Island Explorer buses take passengers through Acadia National Park and neighboring communities from June 23 through Indigenous Peoples Day.
Eric Stiles, president and CEO of Friends of Acadia, said in a press statement that L.L. Bean’s sponsorship has helped sustain the bus system, “greatly enhancing the visitor experience, reducing traffic congestion and connecting visitors and residents to trailheads, carriage road entrances and local communities.”
Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system, told the Mount Desert Islander, “L.L. Bean has shown once again that they understand that good citizenship is good for business. They enable so much of what we do.”
“One of the things I most appreciate about the L.L. Bean partnership,” Murphy said in a press statement, “is that their funding can be used flexibly to take care of the Island Explorer’s greatest operational needs, whether that’s driver wages, bus maintenance, fuel costs, printing of schedules or even a private match for federal funding.”
Shawn Gorman, executive chairman of L.L. Bean, said, “We are proud to continue our support of the Island Explorer bus system, as it aligns so closely with our purpose of enabling people to enjoy the restorative power of the outdoors.
“Traffic and visitation have increased dramatically in Acadia National Park over the last few years, and the impact of the Island Explorer bus system to reduce congestion is more important than ever.”
The Island Explorer has carried more than 8.7 million passengers since it began operating in 1999. Friends of Acadia estimates that the propane-powered buses have prevented 3.35 million private vehicle trips through the park and reduced emissions of smog-causing pollutants by more than 46 tons and greenhouse gases by more than 30,000 tons.
“Transit solutions are critical to the future of Acadia and other national parks in reducing traffic congestion while enabling visitors to access key destinations within the park,” said Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider. “Thanks to the generous support of L.L. Bean and Friends of Acadia, visitors will be better able to access all that Acadia National Park has to offer.”
In addition to support from L.L. Bean, the Island Explorer is funded through transportation fees that are part of Acadia’s entrance passes and also by federal tax dollars apportioned to the states for rural transit, by local municipal appropriations, passenger donations and contributions from area lodging establishments.
Ridership numbers mixed
The Island Explorer bus system recorded 324,477 passenger trips this year between the start of service on June 23 and last Sunday, Sept. 18. (If the same person rides the buses five times, that’s five passenger trips.) This year’s number was about twice as many passenger trips as during the same period last year.
But the buses ran on only half the usual number of routes last year.
In the same period in 2019, which was the last year before the COVID pandemic, there were 513,200 passenger trips. That was about 37 percent more than in the same timeframe this year.
Murphy said there are likely several reasons for the drop-offs.
“Public transportation ridership across the country is down 40 percent,” he said. “In big cities transportation is down, at least in large part, because people are not back in offices yet; they’re working from home.
“In non-urban areas, it’s more about COVID reluctance. And I think that is likely a lot of what we are seeing. Here, public transportation is an option. Very few people who come here are completely reliant on Island Explorer. Most people come here in cars, and they have the option of taking their cars while they’re here. And I think that’s largely what we’re seeing.”
Also, Murphy said, the buses aren’t running as late at night as they have in the past, and there have been some changes in routes.
“All of those things have some impact,” he said. “But I think the biggest impact is COVID reluctance.”