ACADIA NAT’L PARK — The park has applied for a $5.9 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to increase the size of the Island Explorer fleet from 30 to 49 buses over the next five years.
The money would cover the purchase of 21 new buses, two of which would replace the two old buses that operate on the Schoodic Peninsula.
The fare-free Island Explorer system serves Acadia and its neighboring communities.
A major expansion of the bus system is part of the Acadia transportation plan that received final approval last year. The main goal of the plan is to reduce traffic and parking congestion in and around the park, particularly on Mount Desert Island.
One way to do that is to implement a timed entry reservation system for private vehicles to enter a few of the most popular parts in the park. That system will be piloted Oct. 1-18, with full implementation planned for next summer.
According to the transportation plan, “Island Explorer service inside the park would be expanded, as necessary…to facilitate an alternative means of access for those unable to secure a vehicle reservation during their desired entry time.”
With fewer people driving into the park and, instead, riding the buses, they will need a place to leave their vehicles. To meet that need, the transportation plan calls for nearly doubling the size of the parking lot at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, from 270 spaces to about 520, and creating a 250-space parking lot at the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton. Construction of that visitor information center, transportation hub and parking lot was virtually assured with the announcement last month of a $9 million federal grant to complete the $23 million project.
Acadia Management Assistant John Kelly said the 19 additional buses would enable the Island Explorer to run buses more often on the routes that primarily serve the park, such as the Loop Road, Sand Beach and Blackwoods routes.
“That was scheduled for implementation next year, but right now everything is on hold with Island Explorer as we figure out how it’s going to operate in 2021,” he said.
The buses have not been running this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to purchasing more buses, Kelly said Acadia and Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system, are changing some of the routes within the park to accommodate more people.
Assuming the $5.9 million federal grant is approved, Kelly said four new buses would be bought in 2021, seven in 2022, four each in 2023 and 2024 and two in 2025.
“Those last two would replace the two buses on Schoodic,” he said. “The bump to seven buses in 2022 is in anticipation of the Acadia Gateway Center opening in 2023.”
Kelly said there is not yet a target date for expanding the parking lot at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center.
“We have funding from the National Park Service to do the pre-planning for that project,” he said.
Last year, 21 new buses joined the Island Explorer fleet, but they were just replacements for buses that had been in service since 2006 and 2007. Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, said the old buses were “beyond their rated useful life, which is 10 years.”