TRENTON — At the end of May, the fare-free Island Explorer bus system, which takes passengers around Acadia National Park and to some Mount Desert Island communities in the summer and early fall, had 100 drivers who had signed on to work this season.
When the buses began rolling June 23, the number of drivers on the payroll had dropped to 73. As of Monday, that number was 58, said Paul Murphy, executive director of Trenton-based Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system.
He said there are multiple reasons for the loss of drivers.
“We’ve had drivers who had health issues,” he said. “We had some who had committed to come to work here who were not able to for one reason or another. We have had school bus drivers from away who were called back to get started earlier. We’ve had to terminate a couple of drivers. We have had some drivers who are used to driving in rural areas, and they get into the very congested circumstances in downtown Bar Harbor and some places in the park, and it’s just not what they signed up for.”
The Island Explorer buses did not run at all last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of social distancing requirements in place when this year’s bus schedule was being planned, several bus routes were eliminated and others were shortened.
Then, in early June, the federal CDC issued relaxed rules for public transportation that allowed up to 30 passengers on Island Explorer buses. In response to that, Downeast Transportation extended a few of the planned routes and increased the frequency of service on others.
But now, with the loss of so many drivers, the Eden Street route has been shortened so that it no longer serves the motels and campgrounds on Route 3 between the Bar Harbor Regency hotel and the Oceanarium near the head of the island.
“We have gone from half-hour to hourly service on that route, and we have taken one bus off the Visitor Center [to downtown Bar Harbor] route,” Murphy said. “It is still operating fairly close to its original schedule of every 15 minutes.”
Murphy said he is looking to hire more drivers for the rest of the Island Explorer season, which runs through Oct. 11. The starting pay is $18 an hour.
The shortage of commercial bus drivers isn’t just a local problem; it’s national, Murphy said.
“Bus drivers are an aging population; the average age of a commercial driver is around 50. That will tell you that young people are not enamored of the driving profession.”
So far this season, some local business owners and employees in the tourism industry have complained of more rudeness on the part of customers than in the past. Murphy said everyone who deals with the public experiences impatience and rudeness from time to time, but his drivers have not reported any more such incidents than in previous years.
At the same time, he indicated it could be among the factors contributing to the departure of some drivers.
“The general public has been pent up for a long time,” he said. “They’ve got money to spend, and they’re determined to spend it. And they are expecting the levels of service that they would have received pre-pandemic. We’re not alone in being understaffed.”