Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Roanoke bus to Lynchburg train station set

Called the Smart Way Connector, it will run from Roanoke twice daily. On Fridays and weekends, service will be expanded to the New River Valley.

File 2010 
   The Amtrak Northeast Regional route takes passengers from the Lynchburg train station to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

The Roanoke Times

File 2010 The Amtrak Northeast Regional route takes passengers from the Lynchburg train station to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

A new bus service will connect the Roanoke and New River valleys to Lynchburg's Amtrak station starting July 19, making it easier to catch a train to Washington and beyond.

"It's a long time coming and I'm very happy to see it happen," said Carl Palmer, general manager of Greater Roanoke Transit Co., the public transportation provider of the Roanoke Valley.

Riders will pay a subsidized fare of $4 per shuttle ride. Called the Smart Way Connector, the service will be an expansion of the existing Smart Way bus service between the two valleys.

The new service -- considered a pilot program for now -- is a response to demand for better access to rail transportation. Passenger trains do not run through Roanoke. The new bus service will take passengers to the next-closest operating train station, in Lynchburg.

The bus, which seats 16, will make two daily runs from the Roanoke Civic Center to Lynchburg with a stop at Bedford's welcome center.

Expanded service on Fridays and weekends will carry passengers to Lynchburg from Virginia Tech, Christiansburg and Salem. On other days of the week, outlying passengers can use the Smart Way bus to reach Roanoke and transfer to the Lynchburg-bound shuttle.

Passengers will be on the Smart Way Connector shuttle an hour to two and a half hours, depending on where they get on and on what day. If everything goes as planned, they will arrive about 25 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave the station. The bus also will run at times convenient to people returning from train trips and headed home to either valley.

State and federal agencies have supplied just more than $400,000 to pay the subsidy for the first 15 months. Greater Roanoke Transit will buy two $77,000 shuttle buses.

After 15 months, once costs and ridership are known, a decision will be made whether to continue and, if so, at what expense to taxpayers. The $4 fare covers only a small part of the cost, Palmer said.

"The service is going to be evaluated in terms of continuing beyond the 15-month period," Palmer said. "We hope that it is going to be successful and will continue beyond that."

A state feasibility study previously concluded that daily bus service between Roanoke and Lynchburg would draw about 3,600 riders annually. The service is being launched based in part on the strength of those estimates.

Passenger trains were part of Roanoke's daily business from the mid-1800s until the 1970s.

In recent years, the service has begun a possible comeback. In 2009, Amtrak expanded its service to Lynchburg, where ridership reached more than twice what was initially estimated.

But extending passenger rail to Roanoke could be difficult. A 2008 study estimated the cost of track upgrades and maintenance at about $105 million.

State Sen. John Edwards and state officials have repeatedly told passenger rail fans that a bus service between Roanoke and Lynchburg could drive demand and help prove the potential of a rail connection.

In a prepared release, Roanoke Mayor David Bowers said Monday: "This is an important first step in demonstrating to Amtrak the demand for passenger rail service to Roanoke."

Details about the Smart Way Connector are available at 982-2222 or www.smartwaybus.com.

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