This article was first published in Virginia Mercury.
Greyhound stopping on the side of a country road was once such a common sight that it is still a television trope despite the collapse of intercity bus service in America over the past half century. In 1970 – when the US population was only 205 million, the bus industry recorded 130 million passengers; Today, many cities and towns across the country are completely inaccessible if one does not own a car.
However, a batch of Virginia’s state-branded buses prove that a little money can go a long way toward restoring intercity service.
From Danville to Dallas
Although the deregulation of the transportation industry in the 1980s benefited the trucking, airline, and freight companies, it decimated intercity bus service by triggering a wave of mergers and road closures. Over the past 50 years, Greyhound alone has abandoned 86.9% of bus operators. In 2013, with most of Virginia’s remaining bus service limited to Interstate 95 and the I-64 corridor between Richmond and Hampton roads, the Department of Railroad and Public Transportation released a study on how to restore service to areas outside the Urban Crescent.
Four years later, DRPT launched this service under the Virginia Breeze banner. Funded by the Federal Transportation Administration’s Intercity Bus Program, DRPT contracts with Dillon’s Bus Service—a subsidiary of Maryland-based Coach USA—to provide vehicles, drivers, maintenance and ticketing systems. Besides Bustang service in Colorado, there are no subsidized intercity buses anywhere else in America.
The first route, nicknamed Flyer Valley, begins in Blacksburg and makes its way north to Washington, D.C. via a few cities along the I-81 corridor and Dulles International Airport. With fares as low as $15 in an area of the state with few or no intercity travel options, Traveler immediately exceeded commuter expectations.
With the success of this model, in 2019 DRPT conducted an analysis of expansion alternatives to identify other areas of the state that could benefit from their Breeze bus. Southside Virginia quickly emerged as a leading candidate: In the two years since Valley Flyer launched, Danville, Farmville and South Boston have all lost intercity service, leaving residents in two of the three localities with no other options for leaving town besides driving.
To restore service to the region, in August 2020, DRPT introduced two new Breeze tracks. The Capital Connector starts in Martinsville and runs through all the cities that lost service plus Richmond before ending up in DC. The Piedmont Express departs from Danville and goes straight on Route 29 to the nation’s capital via Lynchburg, Charlottesville, and a handful of other cities and Dulles.
“In terms of filling the gaps in intercity transportation, buses are very flexible,” said Jennifer Debruhl, Director of DRPT. “We can modify itineraries based on the needs of the driveway to better serve our customers. We are also able to provide connections for smaller rural communities to important destinations like Dulles that they would not otherwise have.”
With 2021 passenger numbers on the Valley Flyer 27.8% higher than initial expectations, DRPT has introduced a fourth Breeze route – called the Highlands Rhythm – to serve a similar lane but with buses starting in Bristol late last year. Although the two Southern tracks have experienced slower growth trajectories due to their release at the height of the pandemic, Upland Rhythm is already showing signs of success in terms of reaching its riding goals.
In search of infrastructure improvements
So far, the best boarding numbers have come from Blacksburg, Christiansburg and Harrisonburg – all university cities are supported by large student numbers. Dallas and Danville are also strong. The place where DRPT was disappointed was Charlottesville, a city with similar few travel options and thousands of college students.
One of the new runners was Michael Payne, a Charlottesville City Council member who admits few people in the city have heard of Breeze buses: “I don’t think awareness or recognition is as great as it can or should be,” he said. “There are a lot of people who regularly commute to the capital and would rather take this rather than pay for fuel and parking and the hassle of owning a car in the city. The bus station itself is not very prominent; it is easy to walk past it without noticing it. A permanent sheltered bus stop will make a big difference” .
Taking Tweet embeda new statewide bus service provided by the Virginia Department of Railroad and Public Transportation
It operates 7 days a week and passes all over Virginia to DC+ and includes a bus stop in Charlottesville 🚍
And it’s cheaper than paying for gas nowadays… pic.twitter.com/PkTMFv5Lt0
– Michael Payne (@MPayneCville) 3 July 2022
Currently, the Piedmont Express picks up roadside riders at Barracks Row, a suburban mall two miles from Charlottesville Amtrak Station, Greyhound Station and Downtown Mall. DRPT got some money from the I-81 Corridor Improvement Program to place shelters at stops for the Valley Flyer and Highlands Rhythm, but other routes lack the infrastructure to protect passengers from the elements.
State transportation officials said the problem is on their radar.
“As we continue to see passenger growth, we want to make sure our parking spaces are as pleasant as possible,” Dibruhl said. “That’s why we try to locate Breeze’s stop with local transportation systems and VDOT park-and-rides to make the connection as convenient as possible for customers. It’s easier to make investments in state property. With private parking, it’s more difficult.”
Regardless of the state of the stations, Payne plans to continue riding Breeze whenever he needs to get to the capital.
“It’s cheaper and less stressful for anyone who’s traveling from Dallas or going to DC for the weekend,” he said. “I probably saved over $300 on fuel, airport parking, and everything else, not to mention not having to worry about driving myself through traffic.”
With ridership across all Breeze routes increasing by 52% compared to last summer, the DRPT intercity bus service may not be expanded. So far, the four roads that have been introduced have served the Southside and the western half of the state. Although both 2013 and 2019 feasibility studies looked at roads to the Hampton Roads, the division may finally be ready to extend service to Tidewater Virginia.
“We are currently finalizing an evaluation of options to expand service in the eastern part of the state,” Debruhl said. “We operate this system very actively with purpose-built federal funds, so we are focused on making good business decisions based on the success of the study.”
Previous proposals considered routes that began in Norfolk and/or the Hampton and passed through Gloucester, Tabbanock and Warsaw before heading to the capital via Fredericksburg and Reagan National Airport. Despite this, officials stress that while the final route may have one or two stops in seven cities in Hampton Roads, DRPT will not only run buses along I-64.
“The aim of the Breeze Bus program is to make rural connections,” Debruhl explained. “There is already an intercity bus service through the urban crescent, so this study specifically looks at the Northern Neck and Central Peninsula where there are currently no other links to the communities.”