A study released last week on the anticipated ridership levels for a connector bus service that would run between Roanoke and the Lynchburg Amtrak station – a forerunner perhaps to Amtrak service in Roanoke – detailed evidence of support for such a “bridge bus.” Prepared by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) and delivered to the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) after being ordered by the General Assembly, the report estimates that an Amtrak connector bus service, running from downtown Roanoke to the Lynchburg station, would generate an extra 3600 Amtrak passengers per year.
The cost to operate such a bus would be around $150,000 per year, according to the report, with federal and state grant programs picking up most of the tab, but a local matching grant, perhaps from Roanoke City and other localities, would be required. The connector bus service would increase ridership on the Lynchburg line by 2.8 percent, according to the study.
The report also concludes that the one hour long bus trip from Roanoke to Lynchburg may deter some riders. Daily buses would have to leave from Roanoke around 6 a.m. and would arrive back from Lynchburg around 10 p.m., in order to accommodate current Amtrak schedules. “Based on forecasting experience the bus service will attract riders but is on the outer edge of acceptability for most travelers,” notes the study.
A further extension of connector bus service to Blacksburg, suggested at a recent town hall meeting on passenger train service, would add about 40 percent to the operating costs, according to the study, while yielding just 800 additional passengers per year for Amtrak’s Lynchburg (Kemper Street Station) runs, which have been successful to date.
In fact the Commonwealth is funding several trains itself from Lynchburg, which connect to Washington D.C. and other points north/south. Combination bus/train tickets have been suggested as one way to make it easier for people to use a connector bus. The first year of a three-year pilot program on the state-funded Amtrak train from Lynchburg found that actual ridership was more than double the forecast of 51,000.
“Overall ridership on the Connector service could be potentially improved if train arrival/departure times in Lynchburg could be modified,” the study concludes, “ but this could have other ridership impacts and operational impacts for service in Virginia and the northeast corridor.”
Annual costs to purchase or lease buses – pegged at $130,000 annually – must also be factored in, according to the study. If the DRPT doesn’t find a local public transit agency willing to take on a connector bus service the agency can amend its agreement with Amtrak to let a private company provide the same service. Roanoke City Manager Chris Morrill said at the town hall meeting that Roanoke City might be willing to do offer such service as early as this spring.
At least initially, such a bridge bus would not come close to paying for itself, according to the study. Bus passenger revenues for a year are estimated at $11,000, with the state responsible for finding sources of funding for the other $330,000 annually. “Regardless of delivery method, the Commonwealth Transportation Board is responsible for funding allocation decisions related to this type of service,” the report concludes.
Any direct passenger train service originating from Roanoke would only come after track improvements between the city and Lynchburg, with funding for such a train not expected to bring direct service before 2015.