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 on Friday, June 14, 2019. The fare-free seasonal bus system is getting 21 new buses as it gets set to start its 21st summer operating in and around the national park. Credit: Bill Trotter

The Island Explorer bus system, which provides seasonal fare-free rides on Mount Desert Island and in Acadia National Park, is putting 21 new buses on the road this month as it prepares to start its 21st summer in service.

The new buses, built by Hometown Manufacturing of Crandon, Wisconsin, become part of the system’s fleet of 37 buses, four vans and two bicycle trailers. The bus system, founded in 1999 with only eight buses in its fleet, now has 31 buses on the road during peak season, with six backups.

The 21 buses will replace older buses in the fleet that have outlived their reliability and are no longer being manufactured, which made them difficult and costly to maintain, officials said Friday. The Propane Education and Research Council helped connect the bus system with the Wisconsin company, which manufactured new vehicles that are slightly longer and wider — though still with 30 seats on each bus — than the ones they replace.

The overall approximate cost of the 21 buses is $5 million, or about $280,000 per bus, according to Acadia spokeswoman Christie Anastasia. Funding came from the National Park Service and state and federal transportation departments; contributions from Friends of Acadia, L.L. Bean and area towns; passenger donations; and local businesses that pay fees to have riders dropped off at their front doors.

Since its founding in 1999, the bus system has carried more than 7.7 million passengers and is estimated to have reduced private automobile traffic on the island by 2.9 million vehicles, officials said Friday. 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.

“Over two decades and millions of passengers, the Island Explorer has helped reduce congestion and pollution, clearly becoming an integral part of the Acadia experience,” Friends of Acadia President David MacDonald said. “This latest purchase of new equipment, and continued support [by funding partners] clearly signals that the Island Explorer will continue to play a vital role in helping to address traffic and transportation issues going forward.”

Despite helping to stem summertime congestion on the island, Acadia has been getting record numbers of annual visits in recent years and continues to grapple with traffic and crowds. Just last summer, the road to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, one of the most popular attractions in Acadia, was closed 58 times after rangers decided it was too crowded and that some vehicles would have to drive back down the mountain before others were allowed up.

In 2021, the park is planning to implement a seasonal parking reservation system for certain popular attractions in the park to help reduce overcrowding.

The bus system starts operating on MDI on June 23 and runs through Columbus Day each year.

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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....