TRENTON — Paul Murphy is optimistic that 2022 will be a normal or, at least, a near-normal year for the Island Explorer bus system, which takes passengers to a number of popular places in Acadia National Park and elsewhere on Mount Desert Island.
Murphy is executive director of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system.
The buses were idle in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the number of bus routes was reduced by half because of a combination of COVID restrictions and a shortage of bus drivers. The routes that were eliminated included those that served Northeast Harbor, Seal Harbor and the entire western side of Mount Desert Island.
The most recent “normal” year was 2019, when the Island Explorer buses had a total passenger count of 648,105. In 2021, that was down to 293,583.
“The [COVID-19] virus will rule, and we will continue to follow CDC and state of Maine guidelines,” Murphy said. “At this point we plan for our geographic coverage in 2022 to be similar to past years. But we are likely going to run fewer service hours than we did in 2019.
“We don’t know how many drivers we will be able to hire. We are relatively certain it will not be the 120 that we used to be able to have.”
Murphy said there is a nationwide and even worldwide shortage of bus drivers.
“That is certainly aggravated by the COVID pandemic,” he said. “But we have been experiencing that difficulty for several years. Young people are not getting commercial drivers’ licenses. We are not getting the infusion of youth we need to sustain the industry.”
The fare-free Island Explorer buses typically run from June 23 to mid-October.