Wanted: A Better Way to Get From Bangor to Bar Harbor

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At just after five in the morning, a bus pulls into the park-and-ride lot at the intersection of Odlin Road and Interstate 395 on the outskirts of Bangor. About a dozen people emerge from their cars and board the bus. The driver seems to recognize them all – they are regulars, headed to work at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

But this is not a private bus – it’s run by Downeast Transportation, a publicly-funded entity, and it’s open to the public, at a cost of just $6 for a round trip between Bangor and Bar Harbor.

It’s the best public transportation deal in Maine, one that nobody seems to know about. But you have to get up awfully early to catch it. The bus leaves the Odlin Road lot at 5:15 a.m. every weekday, year-round, and can drop you off at the Village Green in Bar Harbor at 6:40 on its way to the Jackson Lab. The return trip leaves Bar Harbor at 3:40.

In light of recent events at the Republican convention, I must now disclose that I plagiarized those first three paragraphs – from myself. They differ only slightly from the beginning of an article I wrote for the October 2012 issue of Bangor Metro magazine.

The bus is still running. And it’s still, nearly four years later, the only regular bus service between Bangor and Bar Harbor.

It’s one of the scariest transportation corridors in the state. Route 1A between Bangor and Ellsworth is notorious for awful accidents; several people lose their lives along that stretch of road, it seems, every year.

According to the Holden Police Department, more than 25,000 vehicles a day pass through the intersection of Routes 1A and 46. That number swells in the summer with tourists bound for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. The road is used by people commuting to work, and by truckers headed to and from destinations Down East.

Plans for a bypass connecting the Interstate 395 spur to eastbound Route 9 toward Calais and Saint John, New Brunswick have been in the works for decades. Parts of Route 1A have been widened. Yet the cars keep coming, and the accidents and close calls continue. Perhaps it’s time for a change of focus.

As I’ve repeatedly stated, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with the automobile. Building more road capacity simply invites more traffic. Instead, we ought to be looking ways to reduce the number of vehicles along this busy corridor.

Twenty-five thousand cars a day adds up to more than a thousand vehicles an hour. And that’s an around-the-clock average, meaning that during the middle of the day, the total is considerably higher. No wonder it’s nearly impossible to make a left turn at an unmarked intersection.

But suppose there were hourly buses running between Bangor and Bar Harbor, one in each direction, carrying an average of 50 passengers per run. Running twelve hours a day, those buses could potentially remove 1200 vehicles from the road, at far less cost and inconvenience than new construction.

A seasonal bus route would only have to go as far as Trenton, where it could connect with the Island Explorer bus service, which serves Mount Desert Island between late June and mid-October. That service could also be expanded to include more of the calendar.

The intersection of 1A and 46 is a perfect place for a park-and-ride lot, serving Bangor-bound commuters from Dedham and Eddington. They could park their cars there, and board an extension of the Community Connector. This service could run year-round.

I realize that much of the summer traffic on Route 1A consists of families on vacation, and that a bus might not be their preferred mode of travel. This is where the long-term dream of a separate, light-rail system makes sense, bypassing the road entirely.

Building such a system would likely cost as much as building new roads, but it would be an important manifestation of a new and needed transportation philosophy. We cannot continue building roads forever. Somewhere down the road, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, a day of reckoning is coming. We are choking the planet with our automobiles. The air quality in Acadia National Park, the destination of so many drivers, is worse than it was a generation ago. Widening the road and building a bypass will not change this.

But changing the way we think about cars just might.

 

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