Jan. 5—To help boost service for the seasonal Island Explorer bus system, the Bar Harbor Town Council has endorsed a plan to increase the town's annual funding for the system by more than 700 percent.
Officials with the bus system told the council Tuesday that the passenger-carrying capacity needs to be increased along Eden Street, where many hotels and campgrounds are located, and on its Sand Beach run, which operates between downtown Bar Harbor and a popular beach in Acadia National Park. It's not clear if that will result in more buses, more runs or some combination of those solutions or others.
To fund the increased operating expenses, the bus system is asking for an additional $284,878 from the town — $211,438 to fund added buses along Eden Street, and $73,440 to fund extra buses on the run to Sand Beach. That would be in addition to the roughly $40,000 the town gives Island Explorer each year. The money would be funded from the town's paid parking revenue and from cruise ship fees, and so would not impact local property taxes.
"I know it's a big dollar figure," said Paul Murphy of Downeast Transportation, which operates the Island Explorer service. "We are quite sure of the need. We are quite confident of the demand, and we know we don't have the current capacity to meet that demand."
Murphy said the Eden Street and Sand Beach runs have been especially squeezed in recent years, though the bus system did not operate in 2020 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The town's adoption of metered parking fees in 2019 resulted in many guests at hotels on Eden Street using the bus system instead of driving downtown, causing buses to routinely fill to capacity before getting to all the hotels along the route, he said. Cruise ship passengers have also learned that they can ride Island Explorer buses for free into Acadia instead of paying extra for guided bus tours of the park, and make up about 70 percent of the ridership on the Sand Beach run on days when cruise ships are in town.
"Cruise ships create huge chaos on our bus system," Murphy said. "Because they are not regular, it is difficult to plan service for them."
There were no cruise ship visits in Bar Harbor in 2020 and only a few smaller ships in 2021 because of the pandemic, but Acadia had a record number of more than 4 million visits last year. This year, there are 174 cruise ship visits scheduled for Bar Harbor, though the town plans to consult with an attorney to see if there might be ways to restrict the number of cruise ship passengers that come to town.
Murphy said that most of the funding for the Island Explorer system comes from the federal government via the National Park Service, which kicks in $1.8 million each year. Another $200,000 comes annually from L.L. Bean. Other funds are contributed by the state, local lodging businesses and even riders who make voluntary donations.
Councilors Jill Goldthwait and Erin Cough both voiced some concerns about increasing funding for Island Explorer by such a large amount, even if the increase is funded from paid parking revenue, which was $2.2 million in 2021, and cruise ship fees. The town has other uses for those income streams, which could result in a greater tax burden for local property owners, they said.
Other councilors said that they fully support using parking and cruise ship revenue to boost funding for Island Explorer. They said the town can always increase fees for public parking and cruise ships if it needs additional money for town projects and programs that are eligible for those funding sources.
Councilor Matt Hochman said that when the town adopted its paid public parking plan in 2019, one of the expressed goals of the plan was to raise more money to fund public transportation.
"I think this is a good use of parking funds," Hochman said.
The council endorsed the plan with a 6-1 vote with Goldthwait, who said she wanted more information about how parking and cruise ships fees are used, casting the dissenting vote. The final decision will be made by local residents when they vote on the town's annual budget in June.