A Greyhound stopping on the side of a rural road was once such a common sight that it continues to be a TV trope despite the implosion of intercity bus service in America over the past half-century. In 1970 – when the US population was only 205 million, the motor coach industry recorded 130 million passengers; today, many cities and towns across the country are completely inaccessible without a car.
However, a suite of state-branded buses in Virginia proves that a little cash can go a long way in restoring intercity service.
From Danville to Dulles
Although deregulation of the transportation industry in the 1980s benefited trucking, airline, and freight companies, it decimated intercity bus service by triggering a wave of consolidation and route closures. Over the past 50 years, only Greyhound has lay off 86.9% of its bus operators. In 2013, with most of Virginia’s remaining coach service limited to Interstate 95 and the I-64 corridor between Richmond and Hampton Roads, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation released a study on how service could be restored to areas outside the Urban Crescent.
Four years later, the DRPT launched this service under the banner of Virginia Breeze. Funded by the Federal Transit Administration Intercity Bus Program, DRPT uses Dillon’s Bus Service – a Maryland-based subsidiary of Coach USA – to provide vehicles, drivers, maintenance and ticketing systems. Besides Colorado bustang service, subsidized intercity buses don’t exist anywhere else in America.
The first route, dubbed the Valley Flyer, begins in Blacksburg and heads north to Washington, DC via a handful of cities along the I-81 corridor and Dulles International Airport. With fares as low as $15 in an area of the state that has little to no other intercity travel options, the Flyer immediately exceeded ridership expectations.
The model having proven itself, in 2019 the DRPT conducted a analysis of expansion alternatives to identify other areas of the state that could benefit from their own Breeze bus. Southside Virginia quickly became one of the top contenders: In the two years since the Valley Flyer’s launch, Danville, Farmville and South Boston had all lost long distance service, leaving residents of two of the three locations with no option to leave town but to drive.
To restore service to the area, in August 2020 DRPT introduced two new Breeze routes. The Capital Connector begins in Martinsville and passes through all cities that have lost service as well as Richmond before terminating in DC. The Piedmont Express departs from Danville and heads directly to Route 29 to the nation’s capital via Lynchburg, Charlottesville, a handful of other towns, and Dulles.
“In terms of filling gaps in intercity transportation, buses are very flexible,” said Jennifer DeBruhl, director of DRPT. “We can adjust routes based on corridor needs to better serve our customers. We are also able to provide connections to smaller rural communities to critical destinations like Dulles that otherwise would not have had one.
With 2021 ridership on the Valley Flyer 27.8% above initial expectations, DRPT has introduced a fourth breeze route – called Highlands Rhythm – to serve a similar corridor but with buses starting in Bristol at the end of the year last. Although the two Southside routes have had slower growth trajectories due to their launch at the height of the pandemic, the Highlands Rhythm is already showing signs of success to achieve its traffic objectives.
Looking for infrastructure improvements
So far, the best numbers of boarding schools have come from Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Harrisonburg — all college towns supported by large student populations. Dulles and Danville also perform very well. Where the DRPT was disappointed was in Charlottesville, a city with equally few travel options and thousands of college students.
A recent passenger was Michael Payne, a Charlottesville councilman who admits few people in the city have heard of Breeze buses: “I don’t think the awareness or recognition is as great as it could or should be. be,” he said. “There are a lot of people who commute to DC on a regular basis who would much rather take that than pay for gas, parking, and the hassle of having a car in a city. The bus stop itself isn’t too big; it’s easy to miss it and not notice it. A permanent sheltered bus stop would make a big difference.
Taking the @VABreezeBusa new statewide bus service provided by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation
It runs 7 days a week and crosses all of Virginia to DC + includes a bus stop in Charlottesville 🚍
And it’s cheaper than paying for gas these days… pic.twitter.com/PkTMFv5Lt0
— Michael Payne (@MPayneCville) July 3, 2022
Currently, the Piedmont Express picks up passengers on the side of the road at Barracks Row, a suburban shopping center two miles from the Charlottesville Amtrak station, greyhound stop and downtown shopping mall. DRPT received money from I-81 Corridor Improvement Program to place shelters at Valley Flyer and Highlands Rhythm stops, but other routes lack infrastructure to protect cyclists from the elements.
State transportation officials said the issue was on their radar.
“As we continue to see ridership increase, we want to make sure our waiting areas are as pleasant as possible,” DeBruhl said. “That’s why we try to co-locate Breeze stops with local transit systems and VDOT park and rides to make connecting as convenient as possible for customers. It is easier to make investments on state property; with private car parks it is more difficult.
Regardless of the status of the shutdowns, Payne plans to continue boarding the Breeze whenever he needs to travel to DC
“It’s cheaper and less stressful for anyone flying in from Dulles or just going to DC for the weekend,” he said. “I probably saved over $300 on gas, airport parking and everything else, not to mention not having to worry about driving in traffic.”
An extension to the East?
With ridership on all Breeze routes up 52% from last summer, DRPT may not be done expanding its intercity bus service. So far, the four routes introduced have served Southside and the western half of the state. Although the 2013 and 2019 feasibility studies considered routes to Hampton Roads, the department may finally be ready to expand service to Tidewater Virginia.
“We are currently completing an options assessment to expand service to the eastern part of the state,” DeBruhl said. “We run this system very actively with federal funds dedicated for this purpose, so we are focused on making good business decisions based on the success of the study.”
Previous proposals considered routes that started in Norfolk and/or Hampton and passed through Gloucester, Tappahannock and Warsaw before heading to DC via Fredericksburg and Reagan National Airport. Officials, however, point out that while the final route may have a stop or two at all seven Hampton Roads cities, DRPT will not just run buses along I-64.
“The goal of the Breeze Bus program is to establish rural connections,” DeBruhl explained. “There is already intercity bus service across the urban crescent, so this study looks specifically at the North Neck and Middle Peninsula where communities currently have no other connections.”
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