The Mountain Explorer free shuttle will cease operation in March. Rose Lincoln

“It’s safe to say we’re both sorry to see that time’s up,” said Al Lovejoy, a fifteen-year driver of The Newry/Bethel Mountain Explorer shuttle bus that will be ceasing service in early March. Lovejoy talked with driver Bob Allen, of Buckfield, on left. “It took us all by surprise,” said Lovejoy on Feb. 23. Rose Lincoln

BETHEL — For 22 years, The Mountain Explorer has shuttled skiers to Sunday River in Newry from various hotels in Bethel.

Western Maine Transportation Community Relations Manager Craig Zurhorst said the last day for the free shuttle service will be March 2.  He said the Mountain Explorer’s ridership was already declining before the pandemic and, “was even lower during the pandemic, but has dropped further since.”

There were only 23 riders for the entire month of January, said Zurhorst. “We got to the point if we had five riders on a Saturday night we were happy. You can’t run a bus service sustainably on that few people.”

In contrast, during the 2010’s the shuttle carried around 38,000 riders each season.

He said reasons for the lower ridership are varied. There are more day skiers, more people staying at Airbnb’s, and fewer Apres skiers. People are more car-centric, especially families. All of these changes have contributed to lower ridership for the Mountain Explorer, he said.

Elaborating on the Apres skiers he said fewer young people are relying on the shuttle to get back to their hotel after hitting the bars. “We were an alternative to having a designated driver. We had a lot of people take advantage of that,” said Zurhorst. “that tapered off and there was not this big Apres ski vibe.”


Other factors

Fewer sponsors coupled with rising transportation costs made it difficult to continue the service, too.

Zurhorst said, “funds raised from sponsorships, and from the towns of Bethel and Newry are used, not only to directly cover operating costs, but also used as a local match which is required to receive federal funding.”

The Maine Department of Transportation, the towns of Bethel and Newry, Sunday River, the Bethel Inn Resort, River View Resort, Riverbend Condominiums, and Gould Academy were all contributors to the service that was free to riders. He said the sponsors gave 45% which was matched with 55% that came from the Federal Transit Administration.

While Mountain Explorer once transported Sunday River employees, the mountain now picks up their employees with company-owned vans said driver, Al Lovejoy of West Bethel. Lovejoy who is retired said he’d love to return to his position if he was needed.

Currently, with the exception of the President’s Day vacation week, the Mountain Explorer is operating only on Fridays and Saturdays, offering one round-trip between Bethel and Sunday River in the morning, one round-trip midday, and one round-trip in the early evening. This abbreviated schedule, said Zurhorst, is partly because of fewer available drivers, but more so because of low ridership.


Gould partnership

Zurhorst said the company also had a partnership for about the last five years with Gould Academy’s On-Snow Program. The two round-trip runs, four days a week will also cease.

“These runs have always been open to the public but, other than Gould skiers, there have been very few riders from the community for the years we’ve offered it. In turn, Gould’s sponsorship for these runs has been instrumental in sustaining the main part of the Mountain Explorer service,” said Zurhorst.

In contrast to Sunday River ridership, Sugarloaf Mountain ridership is still going strong. 100,000 skiers are riding as many as 14 busses at a time at Sugarloaf during their season that starts in late November and ends in mid-April. “We carry more people on that service than the City Link operation in Lewiston-Auburn … it’s mind blowing,” said Zurhorst.

He said the difference between the ridership at the two mountains is because of the roads surrounding Sugarloaf. People for the most part don’t want to drive after they arrive at Sugarloaf, he said.

Zurhorst said if a future transit study warranted a return of the shuttle service, Western Maine Transportation Services, a non-profit 501(c)(3) public transportation corporation, will be ready to help.



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