Rural travelers adjust to Greyhound exit


PINEDALE, Wyo. - Lacking an airport and a bus line to get out of this lonesome town, until recently Cathy Sechrist had no option but to drive across the desolate moonscape 150 miles to the nearest regional transit destination.

But one day this summer, Sechrist called SubLink Stage Line and was soon seated in a comfortable van riding three hours across the barren land south on a shopping trip to Evanston, Wyo. Van passengers can connect there to intercity buses running along Interstate 80 to faraway big cities.

"It's a great way to travel," said Sechrist, who moved to Wyoming from Florida several years ago to escape the urban hassles. "Who needs Greyhound when you can ride like that?"

Across the vast West and into the Midwest, travelers are adjusting to life without Greyhound Bus Lines. Financially troubled Greyhound slashed its routes in August, eliminating 269 stops in 17 states from Illinois westward.

While riders and transportation advocates lamented the loss, Greyhound's abandonment did not leave a void. Instead, it seems to have triggered a restructuring of how people travel in America.

On Aug. 18, the morning after Greyhound made its cuts official, three private bus companies jumped in to fill the gaps along busy interstate routes. Their emergence speaks to a growing trend in American regional ridership.

Increasingly, regional bus haulers are partnering with mom-and-pop van and shuttle services to take folks from rural America to big cities. There they can connect with the remaining intercity routes of Greyhound and other companies. At some points, there is a single ticket connecting multiple rides.

"I don't think it's the death of a system. It's a continuing evolution," said Charles Zelle, chairman of the American Bus Association and president of Jefferson Bus Lines.

In the nation's heartland, the long-haul transit system has turned into a hodgepodge network using a variety of vehicles and operators. There may be more inconvenience and longer connection times, but service remains, bus operators said.

Even in remote outposts such as ski town Jackson Hole, Wyo., a town that has an airport but no bus connections, travelers board a scheduled van for connection to bus stations hundreds of miles away.

"It's like going back to how service was in the old days: lean and mean," said Gene Nicolelli, curator at the Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing, Minn.

Greyhound was founded 90 years ago in Hibbing. The company hasn't stopped in Hibbing for several years, Nicolelli said, and other companies now serve Hibbing from the Twin Cities.

"Small towns need bus service, but you can't expect the big guy - Greyhound - to do it anymore," Nicolelli said.

In Jackson Hole, gateway to Yellowstone National Park, there has been no scheduled intercity bus service since Greyhound abandoned its daily run from Idaho Falls more than a decade ago.

At peak times in the summer and winter, vehicle rentals can be pricey and often include drop-off charges. Airfare for flights in and out of Jackson Hole can be expensive, and seats often are hard to get.

In the past several years, AllTrans Inc., which started with just one van in the mid-1990s, has provided shuttle vans to the Idaho Falls bus station, 100 miles to the west, and the Salt Lake City airport, a six-hour drive south.

The eclectic mix of up to 20 passengers each way has included backpackers and service workers at the chic resorts.

"I don't know what we would do without it," said Jason Wells, 28, whose girlfriend, Gina Valencia, commutes nearly every weekend from Pocatello, Idaho. "You need alternatives to driving and flying."

How well the emerging companies work will depend on whether routes are profitable.

For small van operations, the cost of maintenance, gas, a driver and insurance puts break-even points at about $300. To meet that, it takes an average of three to five passengers per trip, depending on the length of the rides and fares.

"You have to go even if you have one rider," said Alan Blackburn, former owner of AllTrans. "You can't set a schedule and tell someone no."

After selling AllTrans in 2000, Blackburn moved about 100 miles away to Pinedale. With a population of just 1,100, Pinedale had no scheduled service to anywhere.

But the rolling hills around Pinedale in the past decade became a major hub for natural gas wells that have sprung up out of the fields by the hundreds. Now the town's few motels are perennially full. And shift workers rotating in and out of the region could use a way to get here besides driving.

So Blackburn started SubLink Stage Line in recent months to ferry people to a regional bus station in Evanston and to the airport in Salt Lake City. He runs one van per day between Pinedale and those destinations in the summer months.

So far, ridership has been uneven, Blackburn said. One reason: Folks in Pinedale have never thought of public transportation because it never existed for them.

"These are niche operations, and they depend on word of mouth," Blackburn said.

In Kearney, Neb., bus station operator Gailen Kotrous estimates that business is off by more than 50 percent since Greyhound stopped its six runs per day there in August.

Burlington Trailways provides service two times per day in each direction along Interstate 80, Kotrous said. But two of those runs stop in the wee hours of the morning in Kearney.

"Business was good before Greyhound left," Kotrous said. "Now I have to convince people that there is bus life after Greyhound."

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