Island Explorer bus driver Emerson Swope, left, talks to Acadia National Park spokeswoman Christie Anastasia on a new Island Explorer bus parked outside the park’s Jordan Pond House restaurant in this June 2019 file photo. Because of coronavirus concerns the seasonal start of the Mount Desert Island bus system, which carries hundreds of thousands of passengers each year, is being postponed indefinitely. Credit: Bill Trotter

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The seasonal, fare-free bus service on Mount Desert Island is suspending the start of its 2020 operations indefinitely because of COVID-19 concerns.

The bus service, operated by Downeast Transportation, typically carries hundreds of thousands of passengers each year who are a mix of tourists, local residents and seasonal workers to multiple locations in Acadia National Park and elsewhere on Mount Desert Island.

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Officials with the service said Monday that, with guidelines in place to reduce the spread of the disease, the buses would only accommodate a maximum of 12 passengers. Under normal conditions, the buses can carry 43 — 30 seated and 13 more standing. The service usually starts up each year on June 23 on Mount Desert Island and Memorial Day weekend on the Schoodic Peninsula, and runs through Columbus Day.

Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, said that the safety of its drivers and passengers is “paramount.” Beyond that, there are too many unknowns about what demand might be like this summer for the service to develop plans for how it might operate. Assuming that travel restrictions will be the same next month as they are now, he added, it doesn’t make sense to incur the cost of getting the buses ready or to hire and train drivers.

“This is the most difficult decision I’ve had to make in my two decades with Downeast Transportation,” Murphy said. “We recognize that park visitors, residents and commuters love the bus system, so we do not take this action lightly.”

Murphy said that the bus service typically hires about 120 drivers, many of whom come from out of state and who would have to quarantine in Maine for 2 weeks before starting training in early June. Plus, limiting the number of passengers per bus to 12 could be impractical if demand is high, and, if it is low, could make the per-passenger cost of operating the fare-free system “astronomical,” he added.

If, as tourism industry experts have predicted, the number of tourists who show up at Acadia and elsewhere in Maine this summer is abnormally low, it would undermine revenue the bus system gets from visitor revenue fees at Acadia, which could put its expenses under further stress, he said.

“Who knows what visitation will be like,” Murphy said. Even if local tourism businesses do reopen this summer, Murphy thinks restrictions on how transit systems operate will remain in place until a vaccine or antiviral medication for COVID-19 is widely available, which might not be for several more months.

Kevin Schneider, the superintendent of Acadia, said Monday that postponing the seasonal start of the bus service is the “most prudent” action to take, given current restrictions and expectations for how the pandemic will continue. The park at the moment is effectively closed, with all operations except for resource protection being put on hiatus.

Alf Anderson, director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said the decision to indefinitely delay the start of the bus service is a “huge blow” to the local tourism industry, though he understands the reasoning behind it. Many local businesses have customers who rely on the bus system to get around Acadia or MDI, or have employees who rely on the bus system to get to and from work, he said.

“It definitely will have an impact,” Anderson said.

The Island Explorer bus system was founded in 1999 and has been credited with reducing seasonal congestion on MDI, where millions of tourists flock each summer to visit Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, and surrounding towns. Over the past 21 years, the bus system has carried more than 8 million passengers and is estimated to have reduced private automobile traffic on the island by roughly 3 million vehicles, officials have said.

Because the buses run on propane, which burns more cleanly than other fuels, the system also is estimated to have resulted in 41 fewer tons of smog-causing pollutants and 27,000 fewer tons of greenhouse gases from being produced in the MDI region.

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Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....