July 20--The inaugural run of Roanoke's Smart Way Connector bus service to Lynchburg's train station attracted about 35 Amtrak riders Tuesday, drawing two buses into service to accommodate them and a handful of local officials who came along just to celebrate the ride.
"The bus was free today," said passenger Frank Roupas, a Roanoke landlord and ballroom dance instructor. "We'll be doing this every month," he said, showing off a $58 ticket for his round trip to Washington, D.C.
Normally, the bus fare will be $4 each way, but riders paid nothing Tuesday on the first day of a 15-month pilot project to gauge demand for Amtrak service in the Roanoke and Bedford areas.
Wayne Strickland of Roanoke was pleased with the $110 fare he paid for a business trip to Philadelphia, where he planned to meet with peo-ple from the U.S. Economic Devel-opment Administration.
"Look at how many people are here," Strickland said, gazing across the Kemper Street Station's platform as more than 130 passengers waited to board Amtrak's Northeast Re-gional train at 7:38 a.m.
Strickland, who had a hand in ar-ranging the pilot project, is executive director of the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission. It is the planning body that adjoins Lynchburg's Region 2000.
Tennessee officials are joining Virginia's efforts to persuade Amtrak to extend its trains westward from Lynchburg, Strickland said.
"The Johnson City-Kingsport area has not had any rail service for years," Strickland said.
Yvonne Powers also was appreciating the connector bus as she and three family members waited for it just after sunrise at the Bedford Visi-tor Center. The Bedford stop produced a total of six passengers on Tuesday.
The new service fit nicely with Powers' plan for several days of vacation in the nation's capital, she said.
"We weren't sure what we were going to do with our cars," Powers said, because parking in Lynchburg was a concern.
"It gives us a little more convenience," Powers said, and it will save gas money as well.
Bedford County and Bedford City each contributed nearly $10,000 toward the service.
State and federal agencies are pro-viding about $400,000 to subsidize the bus operation, and Greater Roa-noke Transit is purchasing two $77,000 shuttle buses.
A feasibility study indicated 3,600 passengers could be expected to ride the Roanoke-to-Lynchburg route its first year.
However, the $4 fare will cover only a small part of the operating costs, and once ridership trends are established a decision will be made about whether to continue the connector service and at what cost to taxpayers.
The buses left Roanoke Tuesday at 6:40 a.m., according to Garland Harper, an Amtrak employee in Lynchburg who rode the bus. "They need to leave 10 minutes earlier, in my opinion," Harper said.
They arrived at Kemper Street Station at 7:25 a.m., and Harper, a ticket agent, said that was cutting things too close if passengers needed to make ticket arrangements after arriving.
Tom Gilbert, the Amtrak agent on duty Tuesday morning, said 133 people boarded the Northeast Regional -- nearly twice the station's normal load of about 70 passengers.
Staff writer Justin Faulconer contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 - The News & Advance, Lynchburg, Va.