Most bus systems across America face a lack of investment, and national ridership figures are scraping 30-year lows. However, the latest addition to Virginia’s transportation ecosystem cannot grow fast enough.

The Commonwealth’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) debuted the Virginia Breeze in November 2017 through a public-private partnership with Megabus. In the year and a half since the Breeze’s launch, the first route from Blacksburg in the state’s Southwest to Union Station in DC has exceeded initial ridership estimates by over 200%.

The Breeze’s seven stops between Blacksburg and Washington (Christiansburg, Lexington, Staunton, Harrisonburg, Front Royal, Dulles Airport, and Arlington) make the route far more than just a campus connector between Tech and its NoVA satellite location. The Breeze has become a vital regional link, especially for students, the elderly, daytrippers, and business travellers.

Before the Breeze, students at Virginia Tech had to make their way to Roanoke in order to ride Amtrak or take a bus to our nation’s capital. Today Hokies enjoy a bus that leaves daily from the Squire Student Center.

The current Breeze route.

Virginia ventures into long-distance buses

The Breeze marks the Commonwealth’s first foray into long-distance bus transportation. Virginia’s DRPT launched this new connection by leveraging the Federal Transit Administration’s Intercity Bus Program, which is designed to “support connections between non-urbanized areas and the larger regional or national system of intercity bus service.”

The FTA rolled out Section 5311(f) of its Intercity Bus Program more than a decade ago. Its mission was to fill the rapidly-expanding rural gaps in longhaul bus service following the decline of Greyhound and the proliferation of companies like Megabus and Boltbus.

Without the $200,000 in subsidies from the FTA and the State of Virginia, the Breeze wouldn’t be possible. However, that doesn’t mean that the new service is a money pit. The Breeze’s farebox recovery rate—the percentage of costs covered by ticket sales—has hovered between 70-80% since the route’s launch. Compare that with your average transit system which covers just 30% of its costs through fares, and the Breeze looks like even more of a bargain.

With its public private partnership with Megabus, a Coach USA company, Virginia has access to buses and logistical support without having to buy its own fleet or hire staff to maintain and drive them. For a ticket price ranging between $15 and $50, passengers on the 56-seat Breeze buses get a restroom, baggage storage, free Wi-Fi, and in-seat power outlets just like regular Megabus customers. Breeze riders can even buy interline tickets for Megabus destinations beyond the Union Station terminus, a first-of-its-kind feature in the US.

However, the service still has room for improvement. One of our contributors recently took the Breeze bus from Front Royal to DC. The bus stop in Front Royal is located at a Park and Ride off the side of a highway, and there’s nowhere to sit and wait and no shade—plus, it’s near the local dump. The bus was late, and the Megabus app didn’t list the stop.

The booming ridership of the Breeze should signal to municipal and state decision makers the need to invest in the infrastructure to support such clearly needed intercity service. Providing riders accessible stops with basic amenities such as seating and shelter from the sun will be critical to the long term viability of such routes.

Breeze may get two more lines

DRPT projected 7,000 riders per year for the intercity bus route between Blacksburg and DC. After more than 19,300 people rode the Breeze during its first year of operation, officials began hatching plans to add two more lines connecting the cities and smaller municipalities of the Commonwealth’s south and west to the I-95 corridor.

Two future Breeze lines.

One line (green on the map) will begin in Danville and follow Route 29 north through Altavista, Lynchburg, Amherst, Lovingston, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Warrenton, and Gainesville before heading on to Union Station via Dulles. DRPT anticipates the Danville route to have 10,050 riders in its first year in operation.

The second line (blue on the map) will start in Martinsville and pass through Danville, South Boston, the campus of Hampden Sydney, and Farmville before terminating at Main Street Station in Richmond. For this more rural route, DRPT projects 5,500 riders.

The two new Breeze lines—slated to launch in the spring or summer of 2020—are expected to require nearly five times the funding Virginia currently receives from the FTA. DRPT estimates the Danville and Martinsville routes will need annual subsidies of $537,358 and $427,487, respectively.

Whether the new routes beat their ridership estimates by a similar 200% or not, the Breeze’s expansion marks a huge step forward in Virginia’s statewide efforts to better connect underserved communities to the Commonwealth’s more prosperous east.

Wyatt Gordon is Greater Greater Washington's Virginia Correspondent. He's a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master's in Urban Planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's in International Political Economy from American University. Previously he's written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Civil Beat, Style Weekly, and RVA Magazine. You can find him on Richmond's Southside.