TRENTON, Maine — For the first time since it began in 1999, a seasonal bus service in the Mount Desert Island region will have all of its operations based in one location.
The Island Explorer bus system, which provides free rides to the public on propane-powered buses during the summer and fall tourist seasons, has had its functions spread out among sites in Bar Harbor, Trenton and Ellsworth over the years. But with the completion of a new $14 million facility off Route 3, it will have its maintenance, administration and storage all in one place.
“It is substantially finished,” Paul Murphy, the general manager of Downeast Transportation, said Thursday. Downeast Transportation operates the Island Explorer system as well as other transportation services in Hancock, Penobscot and Washington counties.
Murphy said all of Downeast Transportation’s operations have been functioning out of the new building since the beginning of February.
The new building has been in the planning stages for years as federal, state and local officials have worked to come up with a permanent home for the Island Explorer system, which has carried more than 4 million riders on or near MDI over the past 13 years. The Federal Transit Agency, Acadia National Park, Maine Department of Transportation, Friends of Acadia and the town of Trenton all have worked together to bring the new facility to fruition.
For years, the buses have been stored in the parking lot of the IGA supermarket on Route 3 and maintained in the lot out of a service truck. Significant repairs have been performed by Colwell Diesel at its site on Route 1 in Ellsworth, while Downeast Transportation’s offices have been in downtown Ellsworth. At one point, the system’s dispatch center was located in a small building next to where many of its routes converge by the Village Green in downtown Bar Harbor.
Murphy said the new building has two maintenance bays, an indoor storage space for 12 buses that are each 30 feet long, a wash bay and an outdoor fueling station where the buses can refill with propane. It also houses Downeast Transportation’s offices and has break facilities for drivers.
“It’s a huge improvement,” Murphy said.
Murphy added the facility has been named a gold-certified LEED building by the U.S. Green Building Council, which recognizes projects through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Projects are judged by how much energy a completed building will use or conserve and whether the materials used in them were manufactured in a sustainable way.
“We’ve received gold certification and we’re very excited about that,” Murphy said.
Murphy said Island Explorer likely will continue to use Colwell Diesel technicians for its maintenance and repair functions, mostly because of the seasonal status of the service. Downeast Transportation feasibly could employ four or five specialized propane bus mechanics in the summer when the buses are on the road, he said, but would have no work for them in the winter. Officials are trying to determine whether it will make sense to have Colwell technicians working on-site or to take the buses to Ellsworth for significant work.
“The maintenance side of things will evolve over time,” he said.
Murphy said Island Explorer is not increasing the number of buses it uses or introducing new routes with the move. He said the organization is creating the equivalent of one full-time, year-round job with its move into its new home. It has seven full-time and seven or eight part-time employees 12 months of the year. When the Island Explorer system operates in the summer, Downeast Transportation has 110 employees, he said, most of whom are drivers.
An official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building has been scheduled tentatively for Friday, May 4. The seasonal bus service, which has up to 26 buses on the road at one time, is scheduled to begin on June 23, as it does every year.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.