ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Almost exactly 20 years ago, Kevin Schneider was working in the National Park Service’s communications office in Washington, D.C., when he came to Acadia to help with a press conference and ceremony launching the Island Explorer bus system.
While he was here, then-Superintendent Paul Haertel told him he should think about working at Acadia.
Of course, Schneider not only works here now, he is the superintendent. And last Friday he presided over a ceremony on the lawn at Jordan Pond House celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Island Explorer system and the replacement of two-thirds of its fleet with 21 new propane-powered buses.
The fare-free bus system, which carries passengers through Acadia and neighboring towns, begins its 21st season this Sunday, June 23.
“The purpose of the bus system is to improve the visitor experience and help preserve this special place, while serving the residents and businesses of Mount Desert Island and surrounding communities,” Schneider said at the ceremony.
“Without a system like this, we couldn’t run Acadia National Park like we do. We couldn’t serve the visitors who come here every year to enjoy this spectacular place.”
The bus system is expected to carry its eight millionth passenger this summer.
Schneider said the success of the Island Explorer is the result of a partnership of about 20 state and federal agencies and local and regional organizations.
David McDonald, president and CEO of Friends of Acadia, noted that at the outset, it cost $2 to ride the Island Explorer. Then it was suggested that eliminating the fare might increase ridership. But the question was how that revenue could be replaced.
“Friends of Acadia was asked to provide a grant to take the place of what the fares would have raised, and it went fare-free,” McDonald said. “And, no surprise, ridership shot through the roof the next year.
“So, playing that kind of role of some seed funding, some innovation, trying something new to preserve and protect this place we all love is what Friends of Acadia is about, and the Island Explorer really embodies our mission.”
Schneider said the bus system has been funded by “park entrance fees, federal dollars that come to the state, state dollars, private donors, L.L. Bean, the local towns and businesses here. It’s a crucial mixture that comes together to make the Island Explorer happen.”
L.L. Bean has pledged more than $4 million to the bus system since 2002.
Fred Ehrlenbach, chairman of the Acadia Advisory Commission and the Trenton Board of Selectmen, represented the Acadia-area League of Towns at the Island Explorer ceremony.
“In 1996, the League of Towns said we have to address the issue of traffic on the island, and the league brought forth a proposal for a public transit system,” he said.
In 1997, that proposal, for what was to become the Island Explorer system, was recommended for federal grant funding by the Maine Department of Transportation’s Regional Transportation Advisory Committee, of which Ehrlenbach was a member.
The Island Explorer began in 1999 with eight buses on six routes.
“At that time we thought we’d be doing pretty well if we carried about a thousand people a day,” said Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, the private, non-profit corporation that operates the Island Explorer.
“Now, 20 years later, we have a fleet of 31 buses. We operate 10 routes and we’re carrying over 600,000 passengers a year.”
He said the bus system will have about 115 drivers this year.
Also at the anniversary ceremony was Mary Ann Hayes, the Maine DOT’s multimodal planning division manager, who read a letter of congratulations from Gov. Janet Mills. Representatives of U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Jared Golden also spoke.