BAR HARBOR — The 2020 season of the fare-free Island Explorer bus system, which serves Acadia National Park and surrounding communities, is being postponed indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The season typically begins Memorial Day weekend on the Schoodic Peninsula and June 23 on Mount Desert Island, and it runs through the second Monday in October.
Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system, announced the postponement Monday.
“To meet social distancing guidelines issued by the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Island Explorer buses could only carry 12 passengers each as compared to the normal capacity of 30 seated passengers and 14 standing,” Murphy said. “During busy times of the season, the bus system often operates at capacity and requires passengers to wait in queues for the next bus with room for riders.”
Last year, the Island Explorer system carried more than 648,000 passengers.
“We recognize that park visitors, residents and commuters love the bus system,
so we do not take this action lightly,” Murphy said. “But the safety of our employees and the general public is paramount. We’re confident that postponement is the right thing to do at this time.”
Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider agreed, calling it “the most prudent action to take.”
David MacDonald, president and CEO of Friends of Acadia (FOA), said his organization also supports the decision.
“The Island Explorer is among the most popular programs that Friends of Acadia helps fund,” he said. “FOA pledges to remain flexible and prepared to help in the future should there be a recommendation to resume some level of service later in the season.”
Murphy said Downeast Transportation and its partners, which include the national park and FOA, will continue to assess whether conditions might allow the bus service to operate this summer. He said factors to be considered include social distancing guidelines and the number of bus drivers Downeast Transportation would be able to hire.
“Typically, we hire around 120 drivers for the entire season,” Murphy said. “Many of these are local school bus drivers who return to their regular jobs in the fall, so we depend on drivers who travel to the region to provide service in the fall. That could be challenging this year.”
Downeast Transportation continues to operate commuter bus routes from Bangor, Ellsworth, Cherryfield and Milbridge to Bar Harbor on weekdays. It also operates limited public transportation routes throughout Hancock County for travel deemed essential under Governor Mills’ COVID-19 guidelines.
Murphy said Downeast Transportation adheres to social distancing guidelines on these routes and has implemented a comprehensive cleaning regimen to protect the safety of drivers and passengers.