A balmy midsummer breeze sweeps in off Frenchman's Bay and wraps itself around the throngs of people on the Bar Harbor sidewalk, momentarily slowing the drips from melting ice-cream cones and mussing the hair of people lined up alongside a pair of white shuttle buses at the Village Green. A gray-haired driver helps a young family arrange towels, pails, and coolers under a seat as a hiker hauls an overstuffed daypack onto a seat behind them. Nearby, a group of sunscreen-slathered visitors stumble off an identical bus, laughing and chattering as they return from a morning at Sand Beach. No money changes hands: all these people are getting a free ride.
The scene has all the elements of another idyllic summer day on Mount Desert Island, but it's what is missing, locals and frequent visitors note with a smug mixture of pride and glee, that has blown a whole new attitude and experience into this very special Maine island.
Cars. Lots and lots of cars. They bring millions to Acadia National Park each summer and have helped turn Mount Desert Island into Maine's most frequented island (more than a quarter of all summer visitors to the state make it here). But by the early 1990s, these machines had begun to overpower the natural creation they helped popularize. The intensity of the surf at Thunder Hole paled in comparison to some of the conflicts that were erupting in the park's overstuffed parking areas, where cars spilled onto the grass shoulders and into the already narrow roadways. Acadia's spectacular granite bridges, which had previously been a gentle reminder of man's presence in the park, now presided over periodic gridlock as vacationers emptied Bar Harbor's 3,000 hotel rooms and used their cars, minivans, and recreational vehicles to pile into the park. In the evening, even the most relaxed dinner in one of Bar Harbor's fine restaurants was all-too-often undermined by the frustration of trying to find a parking space.
How to accommodate the nearly three million people who come each summer to Acadia, the country's second-most-popular national park, has been a problem that the park's federal managers have pondered for decades, but the solution, which rolled onto the island in June 1999 in the form of a fleet of propane-powered shuttle buses, was distinctly homegrown. Instead of relying on a federal budget that fluctuates even more unpredictably than the Down East weather, the island's communities came together with park officials to create a free, high-tech, environmentally sensitive, and distinctly enjoyable bus system that has become the envy of parks across the country. More importantly, it's helped return some balance to this island wonderland for both residents and tourists.
AT first glance the twenty-eight- passenger Island Explorer buses seem no different than the transit buses seen shuttling around most major metro areas, although cleaner and sporting L.L. Bean's name in large letters on three sides. Built by Blue Bird, the same Georgia company that produces most school and municipal buses, each Island Explorer sports the same windshield-mounted fans that have cooled over-heated drivers for decades, while a standard-issue, omniscient rearview mirror above the steering wheel recalls grade-school bus trips many years past. But the gray cloth seats, foam-padded handrails, and pleasant atmosphere - after four summers, the buses still seem to have that new-car smell - hint that these are no ordinary buses. They're even air-conditioned! And when the Cummins propane-powered engine starts, it is quieter and smoother than most diesel-powered buses, a rumble-rattle that is easily covered by the excited chatter of vacationers headed for popovers at Jordan Pond, lunch at Southwest Harbor, or a wet surprise at Thunder Hole.
What makes these seventeen buses so remarkable is actually what the riders and observers don't see; instead of a cloud of noxious black diesel smoke, their exhaust pipes emit odorless, harmless vapors that are easily blown away by the cool, moist sea breeze. Resting beside the dashboard is one of the secrets to the buses' impeccable track record - they're never more than a minute or two off schedule - an onboard computer and Global Positioning System that helps dispatchers track and regulate each bus. Information from these "smart buses" is bounced to Cadillac Mountain and down to the system's hub at Bar Harbor's Village Green, where an electronic display keeps travelers posted on the progress of all the buses on all seven routes. Similar displays for individual routes are also located at Hulls Cove, Jordan Pond, and Sand Beach, a surprisingly high-tech amenity in an area famed for its natural beauty.
Taking a closer look at the routes of the buses that radiate each hour - and, at peak times, every half hour - from the Village Green in Bar Harbor reveals a key to the Island Explorers' success. While several head to Acadia's most popular tourist sites, places like Sand Beach and Otter Cliffs, others are dedicated to the communities on the island's "quiet" side: bustling Southwest Harbor and tony Northeast Harbor. The amiable drivers, who seem more like local hosts and know firsthand the exhaustion walkers feel after a warm afternoon on one of the park's many spectacular paths, are always willing to pick up or drop off hikers between scheduled stops. The Island Explorers miss very little of this one-hundred-square-mile island, and a new route implemented this summer even serves Winter Harbor and the Schoodic Peninsula, back on the mainland across Frenchman's Bay. This unique bus system was put together by an unusual collaboration, and as everyone has discovered over the past four years, the system really works.
Carolyn Hawk, a nineteen-year-old summer resident of Bar Harbor, uses the buses several times each week to visit her grandmother in Town Hill and to access hiking trails in the park. "They're great. They're a way to get around since I don't have a car, so they really make things a lot easier," Hawk says.
Others have found the buses opening up new hiking and walking opportunities, using the bus to reach a trailhead at the beginning of a hike and then flagging down another bus at the other end.
"A lot of the hikes aren't loops, and for just that reason I've only gotten up three mountains and I've been here for fifteen years," explains Colleen Prentiss, who uses the buses whenever she's not working as a groundskeeper at the Bar Harbor Inn. "But now I've gotten a lot of hiking in within the last couple of years because of the buses."
The island's teenagers, who discovered within the first week of operation that the buses could be used to reach the island's beaches without the need for pesky parents, continue to climb onto of the buses each summer day.
The Island Explorer system was conceived in the mid-1990s, after the Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit group that supports the park, partnered with the Mount Desert Island League of Towns, a planning group consisting of the town managers of each of the four island communities and representatives from Acadia National Park, plus Lamoine, Trenton, and the Cranberry Isles. Faced with increasing gridlock in Bar Harbor and more bumper-to-bumper traffic in Acadia each summer, the group hired Tom Crikelair, a Bar Harbor planning consultant who had previously worked for Downeast Transportation, a twenty-four-year-old private nonprofit bus company serving seventeen Hancock County communities, to design a seasonal shuttle service for the park and the island communities. Downeast also operated the island's only bus route, a two-dollar run that stopped at the private campgrounds on Route 3 and the park's Blackwoods Campground.
While everyone agreed on the need for some kind of public transportation system, the roadblock Crikelair soon found himself facing was the same one that had stymied earlier consideration of a bus system: what to do with visitors' cars. Crikelair considered expanding the Mount Desert Island High School parking lot to serve as a central parking area, but realized that such an inconvenient spot in the center of the island would not work within the business model he was using for the system.
"The car is a formidable competitor - it's an awesome product," Crikelair explains. "We looked at what we needed to do to compete with it, and what we found was that people are not going to go out of their way to ride a bus.
"We just couldn't get past the issue of where in the world we were going to park the cars, since there was no land available on Mount Desert Island," he says.
According to Crikelair, it was Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent of Acadia, who recognized that the solution had already been built.
"One day Len said, 'Hey, these people already have a parking lot - it just happens to be at the hotels and motels and campgrounds,' " Crikelair recalls. Instead of leaving empty lots behind while cars swarmed the park each day, Crikelair proposed a transit system that would pick people up at their doorsteps, quickly and easily transport them across the island, and bring them back to their hotels again, all without their ever having to turn an ignition key or find a new parking place.
After that breakthrough idea, putting the pieces of the Island Explorer system together was easy, Crikelair says. About $640,000 in federal and state grants, coupled with $160,000 in local contributions from the island communities and the park, paid for eight of the $100,000, propane-fueled buses, and each partner also helped contribute enough money to keep the buses on the road. "I told people in town meetings that the standard we needed to use was for it to be good enough for you to use, because if it wasn't good enough for you, the visitors wouldn't use it either," Crikelair says.
Schedules were distributed to every major hotel, motel, campground, and bed and breakfast on the island, and as soon as the first buses began rolling on Mount Desert Island in the summer of 1999, the locals and tourists flocked to them. Crikelair's goal of 1,000 passengers per day was exceeded within the first week of service, and bus seats have been in short supply ever since. Last summer, the buses moved 281,000 people around the island, an increase of 107 percent since the system's first year. The very same campground route that had seen only 3,000 riders while it was a fee system carried 87,000 passengers last year. The other routes are equally busy, especially during late July and early August, when the entire system averages about 5,000 daily riders, effectively removing 900 cars from the island's roads each day.
Locals say the Island Explorer's success is becoming self-fulfilling. Roy Kasindorf, owner of the Ullikana Bed and Breakfast in Bar Harbor, reports that guests who are at first reluctant to give up their cars often need only one ride to convince them of the buses' merits. "They think it's a great system, and that's why I try to push them, because I hear such good things from our guests," Kasindorf says. "Each year there are more and more cars in our parking lot each day."
Having given birth to such a revolutionary system, the island communities continue to nurture and support it. Last year they provided $60,000 of the Island Explorer's $570,000 operating budget, while the national park, local businesses, individual donors, and state grants kicked in the rest. This summer the system's schedule has been extended from ending on Labor Day to running until Columbus Day, thanks largely to a $1 million donation from Freeport outfitter and Acadia benefactor L.L. Bean.
The costs of the program have been more than offset by the environmental, scenic, and economic benefits of the program, according to park and local officials. Stephanie Clement, the conservation director for Friends of Acadia, says that in the four years the buses have operated they have helped prevent more than twenty-four tons of nitrogen oxides and other harmful compounds from entering Acadia's air. And Acadia's Deputy Superintendent Len Bobinchock says the number of cars parked illegally at popular sites such as Sand Beach and Thunder Hole has decreased, cutting back on the erosion and other problems these vehicles often cause. By eliminating several bottlenecks, this decrease has improved traffic flow throughout the park.
For some, the clean-fuel buses complement Acadia's natural richness. "When I see one, it's kind of a nice feeling, as opposed to the monster buses that I really don't like to see," says innkeeper Kasindorf. Aside from the "good guy" image of the Island Explorer, seeing one clean, white bus on the park's spectacular winding roads is considerably more pleasant than watching the dozen or more cars that might be there in its stead.
The few problems that visitors and residents have had with the Island Explorer buses have been minimal, considering the amount of use these vehicles experience. A few of the older buses have had consistently squeaky brakes, a problem that Paul Murphy, general manager of Downeast Transportation, says has been corrected. A few routes also have geographic "pinch points" where buses tend to get overcrowded at particular times of day, usually in the late afternoon.
The Island Explorer's success has been noticed well beyond the coastline of Mount Desert Island. Bobinchock says he's been contacted for advice by many parks, including Montana's Glacier National Park and Valley Forge National Historic Park in Pennsylvania, places where the parks are closely mingled with gateway communities.
But even with the Island Explorer buses operating near capacity on some summer days, Crikelair and others are wary of expanding the system too quickly. The communities that helped give birth to the system cannot afford to offer more financial support, and planners are now wrestling with how to handle the cars of the half-million day-trippers who come to visit Mount Desert Island without the benefit of a hotel parking lot. Some day parking is available at the Acadia National Park Visitor's Center in Hulls Cove, but the park service has been considering developing a transportation and visitor center over on the mainland in Trenton that could accommodate the expected increase in the number of day trips. Discussions have also begun about expanding the service to Ellsworth, with connections even to Bangor International Airport.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us yet, but whatever we do, we need to do it methodically, and make sure that we can pay for it," Bobinchock says.
The Island Explorer system will get a boost next summer, when Bobinchock says the park will double weekly entrance fees from ten dollars to twenty, earmarking the increase specifically to pay for more buses.
As Crikelair explains, "With this approach, we have people who contribute to the solution by riding the bus, and the people who continue to drive also contribute to the solution."
After four summers of rolling through the twisting, rock-lined roads of Mount Desert Island, a new note of tranquility has returned to this special spot on the Maine coast. Acadia and Bar Harbor still have more traffic than in years past, but thanks to the Island Explorers thousands of cars and RVs are no longer clogging the roads and hundreds of thousands of vacationers and island residents are delighted to be getting free rides everywhere they want to go.
The Island Explorer bus system operates June 23 through October 13. Hours during peak season are from about 7 a.m. until 11:30 p.m., depending on route. Contact the Island Explorer at 207-667-5796 or visit www.exploreacadia.com