When Susan Burbridge pulled into the Lorton Auto Train station, ready to take the train to Florida, she had no plans to visit Occoquan on the way. An hour later, she was calling the small Prince William County town “paradise.”
Burbridge and hundreds of Amtrak passengers like her have discovered Occoquan’s charms thanks to a new bus service that whisks travelers to Occoquan for an hour of lunch and shopping when they would otherwise be waiting in the train station.
Earnie Porta, the mayor of the small town, heard a friend talking about the long waits at the Auto Train station, where 260,000 travelers a year put their cars on the train and wait, sometimes for hours, to begin the overnight ride to Sanford, Fla., near Orlando. He smelled a business opportunity, for himself and for the shopkeepers in the riverfront community where he is in his fourth term as mayor.
Porta bought a 14-passenger bus in June and secured the insurance and permissions to start operating it in October. Since then, he has picked up more than 1,200 passengers in Lorton and shuttled them to Occoquan. More than 90 percent have purchased food and about 30 percent buy souvenirs during their hour-long visits to the town.
Most do not know about the shuttle bus before they arrive at the station. Porta simply walks into the Amtrak waiting area, announces the $5-per-person ride and waits for travelers to come aboard.
On Thursday, Jim and Zachary Newell boarded the bus because they were hungry after an eight-hour drive from their home in Rhode Island to Lorton. Once they heard that there was no restaurant at the Amtrak station and plenty of them in Occoquan, just five miles down the road, they were sold.
Fredessa Jaudon, a nurse who works at hospitals in Sarasota, Fla., and in Washington, was already familiar with the bus thanks to her frequent travels between the two areas. “It’s a fantastic way to spend time instead of waiting in the station,” she said. “It’s five dollars, and it’s fun.”
Porta said that he spent more than $20,000 to buy and refurbish the bus. Right now, he said, the ticket sales cover his operating costs. To recoup that initial investment, he plans to sell advertisements on the inside and outside of the bus to local businesses. Already, a few pay to put their flyers and menus on board.
Although he is a full-time PhD student at Georgetown University, Porta drives the bus at lunchtime five days a week. Eventually, he said, he would like to hire drivers.
For now, he is the tour guide. As he pointed out the town’s historical buildings, restaurants and shops, his passengers were tickled to learn that they were getting the tour from the mayor. Porta said their enthusiasm helps him see his town through outsiders’ eyes.
“Residents and business owners complain all the time to each other and me about how things look,” he said. But the tourists are happy. “All of them that have come have almost universally had good experiences. They think it’s a quaint, pretty, relaxing town.”
Burbridge, who was on her way to spend two months working in Florida, enjoyed visiting a waterfront bar and browsing at some stores. “It’s very friendly. I wish we had more time,” she said. “What a great concept, to have the mayor take you here instead of just staying in the station.”