As Greyhound Cuts Back, The Middle of Nowhere Means Going Nowhere
Elva Link is 70 years old and has not owned a car since her white ’85 Pontiac broke down four years ago and was too expensive to fix.
She lives in housing for the elderly poor in this small town of wheat farmers and retirees, and until recently she regularly rode a Greyhound bus for 60 miles to visit her doctor and two sisters in Spokane, Wash.
But now the bus service has been canceled and Ms. Link says she feels trapped in a place where it has become easier for the wheat to leave than for a woman without a car to get to the next town, 42 miles away.
”I’m stranded,” Ms. Link said. ”I’m considering moving.”
Ritzville is one of 269 stops in 17 states throughout the West and Midwest that Greyhound dropped over the summer. In Washington State, 21 Greyhound stops were cut; in Minnesota, 59; in North Dakota, 11, including the capital, Bismarck.
Six senators and a number of other officials in the affected states have asked Greyhound to reconsider. The company has responded that it cannot continue to make the unprofitable rural runs.
”These were routes that Greyhound could no longer afford to operate,” said Kim Plaskett, a spokeswoman for the company, the largest provider of scheduled intercity bus service in the country. ”We have to be profitable to stay in business.”
Ms. Link says she understands that Greyhound needs to make money. Still, she said, she wonders if the buses could stop here just twice a day. ”If they’d stop once in the morning and once in the evening, I can work around their schedule,” she said.
Most of the abandoned stops are in rural areas that have little or no other public transportation routes in or out — places like Ritzville.
This patch of trees and modest homes is a destination point for grain from the surrounding farms, but little else. Thousands of people pass by each day on Interstate 90, less than a half-mile from town, and few pay Ritzville, population 1,700, much attention. ”We’re perceived pretty much as a speed trap and a potty stop,” Mayor Craig Ulleland said.
The grain harvested by the town’s farmers is soft white winter wheat, and it is loaded onto freight trains here and shipped to Portland, Ore., then on to Asian markets, where it is used in noodles. Passenger trains once arrived along the same tracks that now take the wheat away, but the passenger service was cancelled in the late 1960′s and now the trains blow by without stopping. There has never been a Ritzville airport.
Greyhound, founded in 1914 in Hibbing, Minn., has long been an icon of American mobility, particularly for those who cannot afford faster travel. Its red, white and blue buses with their trademark running dog have become entwined with the country’s culture and history — immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel in the song ”America,” ridden by the freedom riders who helped end segregation in the South in the 1960′s.
Ms. Plaskett, the Greyhound spokeswoman, said that the company, now based in Dallas, was proud to be considered a piece of Americana, but that financial losses and declining ridership meant that its future lay not in serving the needs of people in isolated rural towns but instead in catering to urban Americans who want a bus to take them quickly from one large city to another.
The company says the numbers explain the closings. Greyhound’s passenger boardings peaked in 2000 at 25.4 million and have declined by more than 3 million since, a trend company officials attribute to Americans’ reluctance to travel after Sept. 11, 2001, and to the continuingly sluggish economy. In 2002 and 2003 combined, the company said, it lost nearly $140 million.
”That trend hasn’t reversed itself,” Ms. Plaskett said.
Last summer Greyhound laid off members of its administrative and supervisory staff, cut ticket prices and eliminated an order for 200 new buses. Of the stops it decided to cut this summer, about half had no outbound ticket sales in 2003, she said.
The elimination of many rural stops is the first phase in what will become a nationwide restructuring of Greyhound routes over the next two to three years, Ms. Plaskett said, and it is already causing state officials in the West to scramble to help isolated towns.
At the same time it is frustrating people, rural and otherwise, who do not have cars, cannot drive or depended on Greyhound to get to and from the small towns that are no longer served.
”Greyhound is sort of like the transportation backbone for people who can’t afford planes,” said Rosemary Seals of Lovelock, Nev., one of five stops in that state to be dropped. ”Companies need to make a profit, but on the other hand it’s a resource that people in the town sorely needed.”
With that in mind the federal government already offers a subsidy program to promote rural intercity bus service. But in a letter sent in July to the senators who asked that he reconsider the cuts, Greyhound’s president, Stephen E. Gorman, said the program was not enough to compensate for the company’s losses.
”Since that program only covers 50 percent of net operating costs, it alone cannot provide a long-term solution to declining rural revenues,” Mr. Gorman wrote. ”What is needed is either a federal program that fully covers losses or a state match that makes up the difference.”
Geoff Stuckart, a spokesman for Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who was one of the authors of the letter, said that the senators were considering re-evaluating the subsidies but that no action had been taken. Oregon lost 36 Greyhound stops in the cuts.
Ms. Seals described Lovelock, about 100 miles northeast of Reno, as ”a dot on I-80 out in the desert.” An associate warden at the Lovelock Correctional Center, she is familiar with another problem now facing several towns cut from Greyhound’s schedule this summer: what to do with recently released prisoners.
It used to be that prisoners who had served their time in Lovelock but did not have someone to pick them up were taken to the Greyhound stop, given a ticket if need be, and sent on their way. Now, Ms. Seals said, her state prison is having to transfer prisoners to facilities closer to their homes before they are released, costing extra money and adding administrative hassle.
”It’s a trickle-down effect throughout the whole system,” she said. ”It puts a strain on us.”
In some states, smaller bus companies are taking over some of Greyhound’s abandoned routes. Charles Zelle, chairman of the American Bus Association and president of Jefferson Bus Lines, said his company had picked up abandoned Greyhound stops serving 60 communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.
But not all of Greyhound’s old stops will be served by smaller companies, Mr. Zelle said. ”It is the stark reality that it is just not possible.”
On a recent Saturday in Ritzville, a Greyhound bus traveling I-90 rolled by the exit ramp that leads into the town and headed toward the larger town of Moses Lake, 42 miles to the west.
In Moses Lake, the driver, who would not give his name because he said he had been instructed not to speak to reporters, said he was sure that with Greyhound gone, ”nobody is going to pick up Ritzville.” There were 37 tired-looking people riding the bus, which could hold 55.
”Times are changing,” the driver said. ”The passengers now are wanting to go from point A to point B quicker than going through all these little stops.”