AUGUSTA — Bus manufacturers have until tomorrow (April 21) to submit bids to the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) to build 18 replacement buses for the fare-free Island Explorer system, which serves Acadia National Park and the towns on Mount Desert Island.
The MDOT has $4.08 million in federal money available for the purchase, which comes to about $227,000 per bus. If the winning bid is less than that, the MDOT could sign a contract for as many as 20 new buses.
“We have 20 buses that have either reached or are beyond their rated useful life, which is 10 years,” said Paul Murphy, general manager of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system.
He said six buses that are used as spares are 17 years old; they were built the year after the bus system began operating.
There are 34 buses in the Island Explorer fleet, including the spares.
The new buses are to be the same size as they ones they will replace: 30 feet long with 26 passenger seats, plus space and safety equipment for two wheelchairs.
Downeast Transportation had considered transitioning to buses that run on a fuel other than propane, and Murphy asked the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass., to evaluate the options.
“Their study basically revealed that we would be best served if we could stick with propane,” he said.
“The cost of infrastructure to move to natural gas would have been significant. And electric buses do not have a very good dependability record and are very expensive.”
He said diesel would have required additional infrastructure and “was not a popular choice with a lot of our partners.”
“We’ve had great luck with propane, and it’s economical at the moment,” Murphy said.
However, he said he knows of only one manufacturer that still makes a mid-size, propane-powered commercial bus with a flat front and large windshield for sightseeing.
“I can’t tell you how many trips I’ve made to manufacturers to try to talk them into building such an animal,” he said.
Murphy said he hopes to have at least a few of the new buses to put into service before the end of this year’s Island Explorer season, which runs from June 23 to Columbus Day.
Just over $3.44 million of the money the MDOT has available for buying the buses is from the Federal Transit Administration. Acadia is contributing $640,000, which it received through the National Park Service from the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Lands Transportation Program.
The bid package that the MDOT sent to prospective bidders for the bus contract states that the price they quote “must remain in effect for five years … during which time an additional 18 units may be ordered at the quoted price.”
The MDOT will require that the buses be built to provide at least seven years or 200,000 miles of service.
The new buses will join the rest of the Island Explorer fleet based at Downeast Transportation’s operations and maintenance facility at the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton.
The Islander reported in its April 6 edition that the MDOT is still about $8 million short of the amount needed to build a visitor information center-transit hub at the Gateway Center, where visitors could leave their cars and take the Island Explorer to Mount Desert Island.
Acadia spokesman John Kelly was quoted as saying the comprehensive transportation plan that the park is in the process of developing likely would provide “the ultimate answer about what [the Gateway Center] is going to be, what services are going to be there and the scale of it all.”
Sue Moreau, the MDOT’s manager of multimodal planning, agreed.
“We really have to wait until the transportation plan is done before the park can say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it; let’s get the congressional delegation involved,’” she said of the timing for seeking additional federal money to complete the Gateway Center.
Park officials expect to have the transportation plan finalized by late next year.
As for the MDOT, Moreau said, “We still believe in the [Gateway Center] project 200 percent. We definitely feel that it will be one of the solutions to congestion and preserving the beauty of the park.”
And she expressed optimism that, sooner or later, the Gateway Center will be completed.
“We’re going to figure it out,” she said. “You can rest assured of that.”