Island Explorer buses resuming normal service

TRENTON — After being dormant in 2020 because of COVID-19 and running on only half the usual routes last year, the Island Explorer bus system is set to resume its normal schedule this summer with a few add-ons. 

The fare-free bus system that serves Acadia National Park and neighboring communities from June 23 through Oct. 10 will once again include stops in Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Tremont. 

“We’re keeping our eyes on this current [COVID] surge and hoping it’s going to stay manageable,” said Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system. “We are planning to cover the same places that we’ve covered traditionally.” 


Bar Harbor services added  

The Eden Street route, which goes from the Bar Harbor Village Green out Eden Street to College of the Atlantic and several hotels, has also been circling up the hill to the Eyrie Lodge, Hampton Inn and Wonder View Inn in the Highbrook Road neighborhood. This year, that Highbrook loop will be a separate route. 

“We found that the Eden Street route was getting overburdened because lots of people were trying to avoid paying for parking [in downtown Bar Harbor], so more people were riding the bus into town,” Murphy said. “So, we have separated it into two routes.”  

In a letter to the Bar Harbor Town Council in December, Murphy said the Island Explorer also needed to add two buses to the Sand Beach route on days when cruise ships are scheduled to bring more than 1,000 passengers to town. 

“A survey of Island Explorer passengers in October 2019 found that 68 percent of groups boarding the Sand Beach route arrived in Bar Harbor on a cruise ship,” he wrote. “Cruise ship passengers fill Sand Beach buses to capacity, resulting in standing-room-only conditions on the route.” 

Buses on the Sand Beach route will run every 15 minutes on cruise ship days and every 30 minutes on other days. 

Murphy said that adding the Highbrook route and increasing the number of buses on the Sand Beach route would cost a total of $284,878. That is the amount the town of Bar Harbor is being asked to allocate for the Island Explorer for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It is included in the municipal budget that will be voted on at the June 7 town meeting. 

“Acadia National Park will continue to fund the portions of Eden Street and Sand Beach [routes] outside of the proposed additions,” Murphy said. 

In 2019, the last year before COVID caused a cutback in bus service, Bar Harbor’s allocation for the Island Explorer was $45,216. 

Southwest route changes 

In another change for the Island Explorer this year, there will be two routes serving Southwest Harbor. One will run between Bar Harbor and downtown Southwest Harbor. The other will go from Bar Harbor through Southwest Harbor to Manset, Seawall, Bass Harbor, Tremont Consolidated School and Bernard, then back through Southwest Harbor. 

As for COVID precautions, Murphy said, “We haven’t yet decided whether we’re going to allow standing passengers on buses, because that might put them a little too close together.” 

The buses have a capacity of 43 passengers, with 30 seated and 13 standing. 

Driver hiring outlook 

Last year, bus service had to be curtailed at times because of a shortage of drivers, even though there were fewer routes. Murphy said he is optimistic there will be enough drivers this year. 

“We have been hiring since the end of last season,” he said. “At last count, we had upwards of 85 drivers committed for this year, and we’re hoping to get up to around 100.” 

The starting pay for Island Explorer drivers is $20 an hour. 

Downeast Transportation will hold an open house for prospective Island Explorer drivers from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 23, at the bus system’s garage and offices at the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton. 


Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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