BAR HARBOR — For the umpteenth year in a row, the Island Explorer bus system has set a new ridership record.
The 580,245 passenger trips this season, which ran from June 23 through Oct. 9, was an increase of 1 percent over last year’s total, which was 9 percent higher than the year before.
The fare-free Island Explorer buses serve Acadia National Park and neighboring towns.
Overall, this season went more smoothly than the 2016 season, according to Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer.
“We were able to hire a full complement of drivers, and that certainly eased stress on the operation,” he said. “There were days when we were challenged to meet peak demand, but the fleet held up well, and we had great feedback from riders.”
Murphy said the Route 3 road construction project in Bar Harbor presented challenges, but those were anticipated and planned for. What used to be the Campground Route was split into two routes: one that went out Eagle Lake Road to Somesville and then to Trenton; another that took the Route 3 detour out Crooked Road and to the Oceanarium.
“I think that was a good move and mitigated some of the challenges due to the construction,” Murphy said. “There were some days when the construction ruled and we had delays. But our drivers handled it and passengers bore with us and were understanding.”
The Island Explorer system is expected to start the 2018 season with 21 new buses, all but one of which will replace buses currently in the fleet.
“We have 20 buses that have either reached or are beyond their rated useful life, which is 10 years,” Murphy said when the buses were ordered in June.
He said the one additional bus will be put into service on especially busy days.
This year, the fleet totaled 34 buses, including six spares. The new buses, like the ones they are replacing, will run on propane.
The Maine Department of Transportation ordered the 21 new buses and will cover the $4.99 million cost with funds from the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Lands Transportation Program.
The buses will be built over the winter and spring by Hometown Trolley of Crandon, Wis., which was the only manufacturer to submit a bid.
It is estimated that since the Island Explorer system started in 1999, it is has eliminated more than 2.5 million private vehicle trips in and around Acadia and prevented the emission of more than 23,000 tons of greenhouse gases.
In August, the Island Explorer passed the seven millionth passenger mark.