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Reconnecting Small-Town America by Bus

Posted on 05/22/2014 by |AARP Blog Author | Comments

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Growing up in America’s heartland, my parents frequently put me and my sister on a Greyhound bus to visit our grandparents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Along this three-hour trek from Ames, we would stop for passengers in six small towns. These were memorable opportunities to flex a bit of pre-driver independence and stay in touch with extended family.

Today, my son could make the trip by bus between Ames and Cedar Rapids, but children from the smallest four towns along the route are not so lucky because these stops are no longer made. This reality is multiplied across the United States, as Greyhound, America’s largest intercity bus company, has pulled out of small-town America to focus on longer-haul interstate travel. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, between 2005 and 2010 alone, 8.4 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity bus transportation. Private bus companies now serve 750 fewer intercity bus depots.

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In response, states, the private sector and the federal government are working together to restore intercity bus service to rural America. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) leads the way with its Travel Washington program.

Travel Washington began service in 2007, with the opening of the Grape Line between Pasco and Walla Walla. By 2010, the state had three additional bus lines in operation. In total, the bus companies operating these four lines provided more than 50,000 passenger trips in 2012. More than two dozen towns and hamlets in the state have seen their intercity bus service restored along 400 route miles. The bus companies provide one, two or three round trips every day of the year.

Residents and visitors alike take advantage of the bus service for many different reasons. For example, military veterans on the Olympic Peninsula ride the Dungeness Line to their medical appointments in Seattle. Residents of Port Townsend take the bus to Seattle–Tacoma International Airport for domestic and international flights. Canadian tourists roll their bikes off the ferry in Port Angeles and load them onto a Dungeness Line bus en route to the lavender fields around Sequim. An older couple who no longer drives boards the Gold Line in Kettle Falls to visit grandchildren in Spokane. With the purchase of a single ticket, seasonal agricultural workers from as far away as California can travel to orchards in north-central Washington through interlined service between Greyhound and the WSDOT’s Apple Line.

The private sector has provided intercity bus service in the United States for generations. But changing market conditions no longer allow it to profitably serve many of our nation’s small towns without subsidies. The Federal Transit Administration and WSDOT have found a way to limit the public subsidy required by taking advantage of in-kind investments by large, for-profit carriers such as Greyhound. Washington was the first state in the nation to promote this form of public–private partnership. With nearly half the states looking to participate in this program, rural America is beginning to see its intercity bus service restored.

lynott 50x50About the author: Jana Lynott is a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, where she manages the AARP transportation research agenda. As a land use and transportation planner, she brings practical expertise to the research field.

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