DUNLAP, Tenn. — There had not been so much excitement in this rural southeast Tennessee town of 4,500 people since the Fourth of July.
Highway 127, the main drag, was blocked off to vehicular traffic. A bunting-draped speakers' platform was rigged in front of the old Sequatchie County Bank building. The high school band provided the music; congressmen, state legislators and city and county officials provided the oratory.
The occasion was the launching of Greyhound Lines' "rural connection" program--a pilot project to preserve and improve rural bus service in Tennessee that Greyhound hopes will catch on across the nation.
After the deregulation of bus lines in 1982, major commercial carriers such as Greyhound curtailed or abandoned thousands of rural routes, leaving many small towns and country communities without public transit links to urban centers.
The retrenchment was a matter of economic survival for the bus companies, which were hard-pressed to justify sending $200,000, 43-passenger buses into rural areas for a relative handful of riders.
The cutbacks have been devastating, however, to many rural Americans who relied on bus service to big cities--among them college students, blue-collar workers, low-income families and elderly and handicapped people.
Under the experimental plan inaugurated in Tennessee earlier this month, Greyhound hopes to reconnect rural and urban America. Virginia is to join the project in December, and by next February, North and South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama and Texas are expected to be added.
"This is going to be a real boost for rural America," said Linda Wilson, president of the Washington-based National Assn. of Transportation Alternatives, which has worked with Greyhound on the program.
Greyhound will not send any of its own buses into rural areas. Instead, it will rely on public rural transportation systems already in place to take cross-country travelers to Greyhound and Trailways terminals, much as commuter airlines ferry passengers to major airports.
There are more than 5,000 rural shuttle systems operating a total of 32,000 vans and minibuses in all 50 states, according to the Transportation Alternatives group.
Some of the rural lines already offer service to cities to the general public as well as groups such as the elderly, handicapped and disadvantaged, but such service often is woefully underused. Many would-be riders are unaware that it is available to everyone.
Public transit vehicles from rural areas frequently pull into big cities with many empty seats, and low ridership is threatening some lines with extinction. Greyhound hopes to remedy that by offering incentives to bolster rural ridership.
A look at Dunlap, in the scenic Sequatchie Valley about 27 miles from Chattanooga, shows how the program works.
The nine-county Southeastern Tennessee Human Resource Agency (SETHRA) has long run a van between Dunlap and Chattanooga four times a week, with general passengers paying $2.50 for a one-way ride.
That has not changed, but under the "rural connection" program, for each passenger connecting with a Greyhound bus in Chattanooga, Greyhound pays SETHRA a commission based on how far the passenger travels on Greyhound. Commissions range from 50 cents for a trip of less than 50 miles to $6 if it is more than 1,000 miles.
Greyhound permits SETHRA vehicles to come directly into its Chattanooga terminal, and it is footing the bill for a publicity campaign with newspaper advertisements, public-service radio and television announcements and color brochures with schedules.
"We think this program has a whole lot of potential," said Ray Evans, SETHRA transportation director. "It's going to offer our people a better service to link up with Greyhound and go anyplace in the nation they'd like to go."
Evans estimated the link with Greyhound could bring in as much as $20,000 a year for the local transportation system, a much-needed financial shot in the arm.
SETHRA covers about 32 municipalities in its nine counties and offers trips to Greyhound terminals in Tennessee cities such as Cleveland and Athens as well as Chattanooga.
Tennessee became the launching pad for the connector program in part because it has a well-established rural transit network and a good state transportation department, Greyhound officials said.
All eight of Tennessee's human resource agencies, which operate 265 vans and serve more most of the state's 95 counties, are in the program.
Virginia Joins Next
Three rural transit systems in Virginia are to enter the venture next month, and feeder systems in as many as 20 states could be involved by the end of 1988, Greyhound spokesmen said.
For Greyhound, the aim is to improve its own ailing fortunes.