Maine has missed a federal deadline for submitting pollution reduction plans for Acadia National Park and other protected lands.
In this July 22, 2021, file photo, visitors to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park look out over Bar Harbor. Credit: Josh Kaufmann / BDN

Acadia National Park is looking to raise its visitor entrance fees this year, with the goal of raising more money to help cover the operating expenses of the Island Explorer bus system.

If the fee hikes get approved by the National Park Service, most visitors to the park can expect to pay around $5 more for week-long passes than they did last year. The cost of an annual pass to Acadia, good for 12 months from the purchase date, would increase $15, from $55 to $70.

The primary purpose of the increase is to help provide more funding to the Island Explorer bus system, which runs fare-free buses on and near Mount Desert Island each year from late June to mid October. The bus system, which began operations in 1999, provides rides to hundreds of thousands of riders each year, helping to reduce vehicle congestion on MDI during the busy tourist season.

Acadia provided $1.77 million to Island Explorer in 2022, all of which was raised through entrance fees. The park plans to give $2.15 million to the bus system this year and, with the entrance fee increase, expects to give undetermined higher amounts in the coming years, park officials said.

Paul Murphy, executive director of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer, said other funding sources also are giving more money to the bus system. Last year, the town of Bar Harbor increased its annual funding for Island Explorer from roughly $40,000 to $325,000. For 2023, longtime supporter L.L. Bean is increasing its yearly support from $200,000 to $300,000, Murphy said.

“Certainly, we hope the increase in funding will help address all the challenges we face,” Murphy said, adding that the bus system’s operating budget is up 12 percent over the prior year, in part because of rising fuel costs for the propane-powered buses.

But the bus service’s biggest current challenge — finding qualified commercial bus drivers — however, might not be solved with the additional funds, Murphy said.

“There’s a shortage of drivers, and a shortage of all kinds of commercial drivers nationally,” Murphy said. “The pool of people to draw from has shrunk. It’s a problem worldwide.”

This problem is compounded by the severe lack of housing in the area, especially during tourist season, Murphy said. Island Explorer is looking to start new bus drivers at $23 an hour, and to pay its returning drivers $30 an hour, but even then the lack of housing likely will keep some potential employees away.

“We had 10 drivers last year who slept in their cars [because they couldn’t find a place to live],” Murphy said. “And the average age of our drivers goes up every year.

Meanwhile, the bus system’s ridership has dropped since 2019, reflecting a nationwide trend since the pandemic, Murphy said. Ridership did, however, increase last year over 2021 and is expected to keep growing as Acadia gets record numbers of visitors.

“The park wants us to grow and needs us to grow,” Murphy said. “Hopefully the funding increase will help, but it likely won’t cure the driver shortage.”

It’s not just the daily and annual passes that will increase with the plan. The cost of a 7-day pass for a personal vehicle would go up from $30 to $35, while for a motorcycle it would increase from $25 to $30. The cost of a 7-day individual pass for a single person would rise from $15 to $20.

The cost of passes available through other programs — such as a pass for federal recreational lands nationwide, or those for seniors and military veteran — would not increase. The entrance fees do not include a reservation to drive up Cadillac Mountain, the cost of which will remain at $6 per vehicle. Such reservations, which can be made online, are required to drive up the mountain from May 24 through Oct. 23.

The proposed raises have not yet been approved by the National Park Service, but Acadia officials say they hope to have them in place sometime in May, before the traditional summer tourist season gets underway.

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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....