TRENTON — With more people expected to visit Acadia National Park this summer as the park celebrates its centennial, the operator of the fare-free Island Explorer bus system had hoped to put more buses on the road at peak times. But due to the inability to hire more than the bare minimum of drivers, that now appears unlikely.
And Paul Murphy, general manager of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer, said Tuesday that it might occasionally be difficult just to keep to the printed schedule.
“We had plans to bolster the service we offer, to have even more backup than usual at the busiest times,” he said. “We even arranged to lease some extra buses. But we are challenged in terms of hiring drivers.”
In previous years, particularly during August, the Island Explorer has had a backup bus available for the mid-morning runs on the “campground” route, which goes from Trenton to Bar Harbor. Often, the regular bus is full by the time it picks up passengers from the Hadley’s Point Campground. When that happens, a second bus comes along to finish the route.
“We will still be able to do some of that, but having extra service will be a challenge on most days,” Murphy said. “So, our focus will be on operating the printed schedule and living up to that commitment. But there are probably going to be days when even that is a challenge.”
He said extra buses also are sometimes needed on the Park Loop Road route, especially on days when one or more cruise ships visit Bar Harbor.
“That route gets very busy late in the afternoon because cruise ship passengers all want to get back to the Village Green at the same time, so we try to bolster service during those hours,” Murphy said. “We will still be able to do some of that, but we will be challenged to do more.”
He said he would like to have at least a half-dozen more drivers this summer and cited several reasons for the hiring struggle. One factor, he said, is the lack of affordable housing for drivers who don’t live locally year-round.
“Even campgrounds are becoming more than drivers can afford,” he said.
A related factor, he said, is the pay rate for Island Explorer drivers. The hourly wage for a new driver is $13.75.
“We probably have to come up on that a little bit,” he said.
Noting that a new driver’s pay is only slightly more than dishwashers in many restaurants make, Murphy said, “Dishwashers don’t have 40 people’s lives in their hands hurtling down the road in a big vehicle. On the other hand, we’re a nonprofit organization that has limited funding.
“Another interesting challenge is that we’re not seeing the number of younger prospects coming in to replace older drivers who are retiring,” Murphy said.
And he said the area’s low unemployment rate means fewer people are available for bus driver positions.
To help ease the crowding on buses, Murphy said people staying in campgrounds and hotels, particularly along the campground route, might plan to get up and out a little earlier than they might ordinarily.
“We will be putting out some rack cards to encourage people to get on the bus earlier coming into Bar Harbor and maybe later going back, just to try to spread ridership more evenly across the service day,” he said.
The first bus run each day on the campground route starts at 6:55 a.m. at the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton and arrives at the Bar Harbor Village Green at 7:50. But Murphy said most people typically don’t start using the buses until 9:30 a.m. or later.