WA: Low-cost Bus Line to Portland on Track to Compete Against Amtrak

May 07--Travelers between Seattle and Portland soon will have a cheaper option instead of planes, trains or automobiles.

BoltBus, which began four years ago on the East Coast, will offer nonstop service here starting May 17. Buses will leave curbside from Fifth Avenue South, next to the International District/Chinatown transit station, four times a day.

The schedule shows four daily trips scheduled for 3 hours, 15 minutes each, an estimate sure to be tested by Interstate 5's mercurial traffic. That compares with 3 hours, 30 minutes on the Amtrak Cascades train line, or about 4 hours on a regular Greyhound bus that stops in Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia and Kelso en route.

Prices vary based on demand — nearly all tickets are bought online at BoltBus.com, and a few are sold curbside. Listings for the next few weeks show mostly $6 to $10 seats. Some are $17, and prices can reach $25 or so. Rates are lower the earlier people buy, and each bus includes at least one $1 seat.

Amtrak costs more, with fares generally ranging from $32 to $53, with some Memorial Day weekend trips as high as $69.

The new, low-cost bus service creates a tricky situation, as the state Department of Transportation has been awarded nearly $800 million in federal grants to improve the Amtrak Cascades line, the stations and freight passage. Could nonstop buses undermine that huge investment in rail, or would bus and train somehow complement each other?

"The more the merrier," says Bruce Agnew, a fellow at the pro-rail Cascadia Center in Seattle, part of the Discovery Institute.

But, he says, riders understand that a train provides a different experience.

On a train, "there is a lot to be said for being able to walk around, have a locally crafted beer or just watch eagles nesting on the shores of the Salish Sea, rather than gazing at an endless line of red lights on I-5," Agnew said.

Comfortable intercity buses are commonplace in many parts of the world, including Mexico and China.

The new U.S. generation of direct intercity buses got a boost from New York City, where small operators started picking up riders in Chinatown.

BoltBus was created to compete in that market, as a partnership by Greyhound and Peter Pan Bus Lines, which is why the buses stop at curbside instead of in a traditional station, said Joe Hapac, Greyhound terminal manager in Seattle.

The black-and-orange buses are roomier than a normal Greyhound because one seat was removed in the rear, along with one row of seats, so there are 50 rather than 55 seats per coach, Hapac said. Costs can be lower than a standard bus because BoltBus forgoes stations, baggage handlers, ticket agents and fuel costs of multiple stops, he said.

BoltBus is talking about whether to start a Seattle-Vancouver, B.C., route but has made no decision, spokesman Tim Stokes said.

In addition to competing with local buses, BoltBus back East also vies with Amtrak.

In the Northwest, Agnew said the Cascades fare is much lower than the Acela rail line in the East, and therefore competitive.

By 2017, Amtrak Cascades aims to cut travel time to Portland an additional 10 minutes and add two more round-trip trains, for a total seven daily, including one Coast Starlight to California.

Only about one-third of last year's 840,000 passengers on the line went all the way from Seattle to Portland, said Laura Kingman, rail marketing and communications manager for the state Transportation Department. That leaves a big market in between that BoltBus wouldn't reach.

Some people might choose a bus one direction and a train coming home, depending on schedules and ticket availability, Kingman said.

Down at Seattle's King Street Station, riders waiting for a Portland train Friday morning said they would at least consider a cheaper bus.

"I would totally take it," art student Leighla Webb said when shown BoltBus listings of $8 in early June. "That's phenomenal." Webb said she was looking forward to her first-ever train ride Friday for a fare of $32.

Ironically, a mudslide near downtown Seattle delayed a midday Portland trip 50 minutes Friday and canceled outright the passenger trains north -- those riders instead were taking buses from Everett or beyond.

Sandi Olson, waiting for a Portland train, said she's had good experience with the QuickShuttle bus to Canada, so she would try BoltBus. In a confined bus space, "We'd probably just sleep or talk the whole time anyway," said her friend Jennifer Costales.

Jim and Jan Stroh, of Bellevue, said they prefer the train to ride as a couple but will look into BoltBus if they take their three sons to Portland, because, in that case, they would have to buy five round-trip tickets.

Tony Misch, heading to an art opening in Portland, said he strongly prefers rail, but paid $53, so he would consider the cost differences.

"If it was within $15 to $20," he said, "I'd take the train."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

Copyright 2012 - The Seattle Times

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