ACADIA NATIONAL PARK — Options for providing more frequent and less expensive ferry service between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor are being studied by Acadia officials, who want to make it easier for people to visit the section of the park on the Schoodic Peninsula.
Downeast Windjammer Cruises, owned by Steven Pagels of Cherryfield, has been operating a ferry between the two towns in the summer, with four round trips daily. The round-trip rates posted on the company’s website for the 2015 season are $32 for adults and $22 for children, plus $7 for bicycles.
With the opening this summer of the Schoodic Woods campground adjacent to the Schoodic section of Acadia, and in anticipation of a large influx of visitors for Acadia’s 100th anniversary in 2016, park officials are looking at ways for more people to get from one side of Frenchman Bay to the other without having to drive. The driving distance between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor is 43 miles.
“The hope is to have a way to travel by water between Schoodic and Bar Harbor that expands the capacity of the boat and the frequency of service and makes it more affordable,” said Acadia park planner John Kelly.
Park Superintendent Sheridan Steele told the Acadia Advisory Commission on Monday that the current ferry service is “pretty limited.”
“We’d like to see that expanded,” he said. “It’s going to benefit campers who might want to come to MDI for the day or people on MDI who may want to go to Schoodic to bike ride or hike over there for the day.”
Steele said the ferry also can benefit the Schoodic Institute and programs at Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC.)
“It’s going to become a much more important connection,” Steele said of the ferry. “And we’re working to try to help make improvements to that service.”
Pagels told the Islander Monday that he probably will be increasing the frequency of ferry service this summer.
“We’re looking at options for the schedule right now and what we can do for this upcoming year as [the campground] gets busier,” he said. “We will likely change the schedule.”
The vessels that Pagels has been using in recent years for the Bar Harbor-Winter Harbor ferry service can carry about 45 passengers. But he indicated he could easily use larger vessels if there is a need for increased capacity.
As for the possibility of lowering fares, Pagels said he is looking into that.
“If there is any reduced price structuring, it likely would be in conjunction with packaging or partnering with operations on the [Schoodic] side, such as the campground,” he said. “We’ve done that before in other ferry operations. But it is not very likely we would do an across-the-board fare decrease.”
The Islander asked Kelly, the national park planner, if the park intends to work with the current ferry operator to achieve the aims of more frequent ferry service, greater vessel capacity and lower passenger fares.
“That certainly is our starting point,” he said. “But we’re not putting all of our eggs in that basket or simply relying on that to be the ferry service.”
Kelly said another option might be for Downeast Transportation, the nonprofit company that operates the Island Explorer bus system, to operate a new Bar Harbor-Winter Harbor ferry.
“There is nothing that would limit them to just operating buses,” Kelly said. “It’s a public transit organization, so that could very well include ferry service.”
He said the operator of the existing ferry service is an independent business with “no financial or operational agreement” with either the park or Downeast Transportation. But he said the park would like to have closer ties.
“We want to have a formal relationship between the Island Explorer, the park and the boat operator, regardless of who the operator is,” Kelly said.
Both he and Paul Murphy, general manager of Downeast Transportation, emphasized that there have been only preliminary discussions about the possibility of Downeast Transportation operating a new ferry service.
“We’ve had hypothetical conversations about it,” Murphy said. “But it would be a stretch to say that there has been any substantive proposal or planning or anything like that in terms of our somehow being part of that operation. I have sat in on several discussions, including with the park and the current [ferry] operator, about the possibilities and what-ifs.”
As for the prospects for any kind of new ferry service, Murphy said, “I can say with pretty much certainty that nothing like that, whether with us or anybody else, is going to happen this season.”
One factor that could be a consideration in planning any new cross-bay ferry service is ownership of the international ferry terminal in Bar Harbor. The Canadian government still owns the facility. But a bill currently before the Maine Legislature would authorize a $5 million general fund bond issue for the state’s purchase of the ferry terminal and its development as a multimodal transportation facility and cruise ship dock. Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) sponsored the bill, which has been referred to the committee on appropriations and financial affairs.
If approved by the Legislature, the proposed bond issue would go before voters in a statewide referendum in November.
“We are not looking to use the town pier in either Bar Harbor or Winter Harbor because those are already tied up with commercial fishermen and other uses,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to interfere or compete with those. So, we are looking at private facilities or the ferry terminal in Bar Harbor if [the state’s purchase] of that ever comes to fruition and improvements are made.”
Expanded bus service
One change that it is in the works for this summer is an increase in the frequency of Island Explorer bus service on the Schoodic Peninsula. Downeast Transportation has purchased two new buses for the Schoodic route.
“Our draft plan has us doubling the service, from an hourly service to a half-hour service,” Murphy said. “That’s not finalized for this year. But we certainly do intend to increase our service over there to accommodate the new campground and the perception that there will be more [bus] users.”
One stop on the bus route is the Winter Harbor marina, where the ferry from Bar Harbor docks. There, ferry passengers can board the bus for rides around the southern part of the peninsula.
Pagels, the ferry operator, said he is working with Downeast Transportation’s planning consultant, Tom Crikelair, to coordinate the Island Explorer and ferry schedules for this summer.
In previous years, both the ferry and the buses have run from June 23 through Labor Day.
According to the Downeast Windjammer Cruises website, the ferry and buses will run for an additional week this year, through Sept. 14. But Murphy said Downeast Transportation has made no decision about extending the bus season.
“We’ve not had that conversation yet; we’re not that far along in our planning,” he said. “I would imagine that if we don’t do it this year, that it’s to come.”
In addition to the Winter Harbor marina, bus stops on the Island Explorer’s Schoodic route include the villages of Winter Harbor, Birch Harbor and Prospect Harbor, and at Frazier Point and Schoodic Point in Acadia National Park. This year, a bus stop will be added at the new Schoodic Woods campground.
The campground, which is scheduled to open in late July, will have 96 campsites. It is being developed by a private, nonprofit corporation, but will be operated by the national park.