Some of the buses currently in use for tours in Acadia National Park are too large to navigate park roads. The park’s draft transportation plan calls for limiting the size of buses allowed on the Park Loop Road and the Cadillac road. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANP

Plan calls for smaller tour buses Island Explorer expansion eyed

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about Acadia National Park’s proposed transportation plan.

ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Many of today’s tour buses are too large to navigate the sharp curves on the Cadillac Mountain Summit Road without veering far into the oncoming lane or to fit under some of the carriage road bridges without straddling the center line.

The park’s draft transportation plan that was unveiled recently calls for limiting the size of buses allowed on the Park Loop Road and the Cadillac road.

“To improve safety and preserve the historic character of the Park Loop Road, only vehicles that fit the geometry of the road and heights of the bridge underpasses would be permitted,” the plan states. “These requirements would be phased in over several years.”

The largest of the motor coaches that currently take sightseers around Acadia, including buses carrying cruise ship passengers, are 45 feet long and about 12 feet high and have a capacity of 56 passengers.

The park’s draft transportation plan does not specify a maximum size for tour buses in the future, saying only that tour operators would need to use smaller ones.

“If we’re asking them to go to smaller vehicles, that’s going to require some investment on their part,” said Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider.

“So, the idea is that we would have a concessions contract, which would be for maybe 10 years, under which contract holders would be the exclusive providers of commercial transportation to certain destinations such as the Cadillac summit.

“That would give them a reasonable ability to make back the investment they make in smaller vehicles plus a profit during that time period.”

Tour bus companies, including those carrying cruise ship passengers, currently operate in Acadia under a commercial use authorization. That authorization is issued for one year with no guarantee of renewal.

Island Explorer expansion

The park’s draft transportation plan also envisions an expansion of the free-to-ride Island Explorer bus system, which carries passengers through Acadia and surrounding towns and operates each year from June 23 to Columbus Day.

Last year, the Island Explorer set a record with 580,245 passenger trips. That number will grow if, as expected, Acadia visitation continues to increase.

Bus ridership is likely to increase even more if the park implements a “timed-entry” reservation system for private vehicles on Ocean Drive and the Cadillac Summit Road at peak times and also phases out right-lane parking on the Park Loop Road.

As for adding Island Explorer routes or increasing the frequency of bus trips, Schneider said, “We have to find a way to do it that is financially sustainable. The Island Explorer is a free bus service, but it’s not free to operate.”

The annual budget is $2.3 million. Anticipated revenue for the coming fiscal year includes about $1.6 million, or 69 percent of the budget, from Acadia entrance fees, $311,000 from the Federal Transit Administration, $200,000 from L.L. Bean, $74,000 in allocations from towns served by the Island Explorer, $55,000 from individual donors and $10,000 from Friends of Acadia.

Any expansion of the Island Explorer system would require more buses and more drivers, and that would take more money. Schneider said expansion of service could be supported by fees charged for the timed-entry reservations. The idea is that the amount that drivers of private vehicles would be charged for reservations would exceed the cost of operating the reservations system alone.

Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer system, said no decisions have been made about how or to what extent bus service might be increased. But he said he had expected that Acadia’s draft transportation plan would envision some expansion of the bus system.

“I think it’s clear that when the park moves to a reservation system, that will shift more folks from their own vehicles and onto the bus system, because you won’t need a reservation to get on a bus and go into the park, and you won’t need to worry about finding a place to park.

“But given that we are already at or over capacity, we need to figure out how we adjust and when we adjust.”

Acadia’s draft transportation plan/environmental impact statement is 242 pages long. Noting that the Island Explorer is mentioned 146 times, Murphy said, “We are gratified to be thought of as part of the solution for the park. We are willing to do whatever we can.”

Local tour operators

Two local sightseeing tour operators, Oli’s Trolley and National Park Tours, have concession contracts with the park that allow them to take visitors around the Park Loop Road and to the top of Cadillac Mountain. Their current contracts expire Dec. 31, 2019. The park has the option of extending such contracts.

Acadia’s draft transportation plan includes no proposals for changing the park’s relationship with locally based tour operators.

Taxis, Uber and Lyft

Local taxis and other ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft can take people into Acadia provided they have obtained a commercial use authorization.

Schneider said these services might become more popular if the park implements a reservation system for private vehicles on Ocean Drive and the Cadillac Summit Road at certain times. Taxis and similar services would not need reservations because they would not park in Acadia; they would just stop at Sand Beach, for example, long enough to drop off their passengers.

Schneider said it is possible that the cost of using such services might go down in the future.

“As electric vehicles come into the broader market, that will drive down the cost of operation,” he said. “And, in the lifespan of this transportation plan, autonomous vehicles are going to drive down that cost further.”


Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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