By dint of a little publicity, a lot of visibility, bloated gas prices and exurban growth, a twice-doomed commuter bus running a weekday route between the Shenandoah Valley and the District has been granted an extended life.
"That bus is not going to stop," said Marie Weaver, a ride-share coordinator with the Valley Commuter Assistance Program, which launched the bus. "It's doing too good, and it's really serving a need for our commuters."
The bus line began in May and was the third attempt by valley planners to get the area's growing community of Washington commuters out of their cars, which are stretching traffic clogs on Interstate 66 farther and farther west. Twice before -- in the early 1990s and last fall -- a similar bus service went bust when ridership was too low.
This time, planners tossed in $10,000 in state grant money to subsidize the bus, which is run by a Winchester tour operator, ensuring it would be on the road at least three months even without the 32 riders needed to make ends meet.
With about five regulars, it didn't at first. Now, regular ridership has reached the target number, Weaver said. A new $16,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation will help planners market the route and, with luck, fill all 47 seats, she said.
The bus has gotten so much buzz that it spawned a second route, to a Chantilly office complex, and Weaver said planners are thinking big: They soon want to unveil a second Shenandoah-D.C. route -- one that hits the road at 5:30 a.m., an hour after the original one.
Riders, meanwhile, said they are ecstatic the bus has managed to eke out an enduring existence.
"It's much less stressful" than driving, said Stephens City resident Marilynn Douglas. "I can just close my eyes and think about things I want to do, plan things, even read a book."
Several stars aligned to keep the bus afloat this time around, Weaver said. Articles about it in The Washington Post and Shenandoah Valley newspapers brought attention. Gas prices topping $3 per gallon also have steered drivers toward public transportation, she said. Riders said taking the bus, which costs $90 a week or $300 a month and accepts Metrocheks, is cheaper than driving.
The guaranteed three-month run gave commuters more chances to see the bus on the road and in the Front Royal Park and Ride lot and feel confident that it would continue. Several new riders joined after spotting it, Weaver said.
On a broader level, success also stems from the growing prominence of the Shenandoah Valley -- once a home to rural dwellers or a destination for urbanites seeking a shot of countryside -- as a relatively affordable periphery of the Washington region. Though some riders are District residents visiting valley-dwelling friends on weekends, Weaver said, most who inquire about the bus are District area workers who have moved to the valley from farther east or from other states.
The growth, of course, means more cars on the interstate and more headaches for drivers. Taking the bus doesn't necessarily mean time saved -- it can be a two-hour trip, even with the HOV lane. But riders said it's worth it.
Jolene Hall moved to Linden, in Warren County, soon after the bus launched. Knowing there was a bus to ferry her to work at the National Park Service in the District helped her family choose the town, she said. She sometimes drives or carpools, but the bus is best, she said.
"I'm a lot more tired if I drive when I come home, and I have no more energy left for my son," she said.
-- Karin Brulliard