BAR HARBOR — Every day this season, Bar Harbor resident Zoë Reifsnyder has taken an Island Explorer bus to work. She gets on at the Blackwoods stop and gets off at The Jackson Laboratory.
Reifsnyder doesn’t drive, so the fare-free bus is an ideal way to get around. “Having the bus run on a regular schedule allows me to be more independent,” she said while attending an end-of-the-season cookout at the Island Explorer hub on Monday.
Monday marked the end of a four-month season for the bus system. While there is always a gathering to mark the last day, this year, given staffing shortages, route reductions and pandemic restrictions, the celebration felt a little more momentous.
“I don’t remember having a year like this,” said Operations Manager Jodi Moore, who is finishing her sixteenth summer season with Downeast Transportation, the nonprofit that operates the Island Explorer.
The bus system operated at reduced capacity this year. It was down 45 drivers from its normal roster of 120. It reduced its routes and canceled trips to the so-called “quiet side” of the island. Moore said that this year presented a number of logistical challenges for the organization, but she said her staff rose to the occasion.
For Moore, the key to retaining drivers is in the company culture. She said that her team members are made to feel valued and that the company works to show its appreciation continually by highlighting weekly achievements in a company newsletter, providing snacks and drinks for the drivers and holding a driver appreciation week in August complete with raffles and treats.
Normally, there is a 90 percent return rate for drivers year over year, but the coronavirus pandemic upended that. Moore said she hired 100 drivers this year, but that number dwindled to 75 by the time the first bus rolled out in June, which led to the further limiting of routes and trips.
The bus system did not operate in 2020. In 2019, its 120 drivers carried 647,098 passengers.
Driver Larry Reynolds grew up on Mount Desert Island but now lives in Otis. This marked his fourth year as an Island Explorer driver. He said he enjoys talking to people and helping them navigate the island. Need a trail suggestion? Or a restaurant recommendation? Reynolds said he would be glad to help.
In between trips this year, each bus was sanitized to combat COVID-19. This job, and many others, falls under the purview of Phyllicia Jordan, the facility and fleet manager for Downeast Transportation. Jordan said the season went well overall “for what we were dealt,” and said her crew will spend the winter getting several new buses online and arranging for maintenance ahead of next year’s service.
Moore said that as this season ends, she is already thinking about the next. During the upcoming months, she will find out who is expected to return and then host job fairs and offer bonuses to existing drivers who recommend new hires to fill in the holes.
By early March, Moore expects to know how many drivers will return. From there she will begin to design routes and prepare new-driver orientation. She said that Island Explorer hopes to return to full service for the next season, which will begin on June 23, 2022.