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Greyhound Leaves Driving to Others

The bus company will drop 267 stops in 18 states in a bid to stay profitable.

August 08, 2004|Joseph B. Frazier | Associated Press Writer

GOLDENDALE, Wash. — Twice a day a Greyhound bus emerges from the wheat and alfalfa fields of eastern Washington and cruises into the parking lot of John Willsey's bowling alley.

Some days there are no passengers in this farm town of 3,700, so the bus doesn't bother to stop. But those who use it often rely on it.

Goldendale is among 267 communities in 18 states across the West and Midwest that will be losing Greyhound service Aug. 18, leaving only 99 communities in the northern region where the interstate bus line will pick up passengers.

"We have an elderly woman who uses it twice a week to go to Portland," said Willsey, whose bowling alley has doubled as a depot for 25 years.

"I don't know what she's going to do. She'll have to go plumb to The Dalles [35 miles away] to get a bus," he said. "They've been telling us for 10 years they were going to cut and run, and boy, they did."

The vast majority of the cuts are to communities that have no commercial rail or air service, causing potential problems for people wanting to get to places that do.

Greyhound says it has to streamline operations to stay in business.

But cutting 267 communities -- from busy towns like Steamboat Springs, Colo., to more obscure places such as Big Timber, Mont. -- weakens a web that has held the small towns of America together for decades.

Just across the Columbia River from Goldendale is the town of Biggs, Ore. Interstate 84 and U.S. 97 meet in Biggs, and nine or 10 buses stop there each day. But Biggs is losing Greyhound service as well.

Philip Jenks was on a bus that pulled into Biggs. A frequent Greyhound rider, he was traveling from Utah's Ute Indian Reservation to visit a niece in Warm Springs, Ore., a town also due to be cut.

"I'll have to take to hitchhiking, I guess," he said.

Biggs is a small cluster of truck stops, motels and gas stations that Columbia Gorge winds tend to roast in summer and freeze in winter. The official stop, Linda's Restaurant, is open 24 hours a day, feeding passengers and truckers and pumping gas.

Also at the Biggs bus stop was Diana Leyva, who was traveling from Texas to Seattle to be introduced to her boyfriend's family, a 2 1/2 -day trip. She said the bus went 10 hours in one stretch without passengers being allowed off the bus.

"They need more stops, not fewer," Leyva said.

Greyhound says it lost $140 million in 2002 and 2003 as ridership dropped and costs rose, and must concentrate on more profitable routes.

Ridership throughout the industry dropped after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Lori Levy, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Bus Assn. She said the industry began recovering last spring but still has not reached the high attained in 2000.

Of the stations being eliminated, about half had no outbound ticket sales in 2003, said company spokeswoman Lynn Brown at Greyhound Lines headquarters in Dallas.

The cuts are hitting some states harder than others.

Minnesota will lose service to 43 of the 57 communities on the current route. Eleven of the remaining 14 towns' service will be reduced.

In North Dakota, Greyhound is cutting 11 stops, leaving only Fargo. North Dakota's capital, Bismarck, is among the towns losing service. So is Wyoming's capital, Cheyenne.

Oregon will lose 35 stops, only one or two of which have commercial air or rail service.

Several ticket agents said smaller local lines may fill some of the gaps eventually.

Greyhound says the cuts are effective Aug. 18 but some depot operators say they've been told they will come faster than that.

Stephen Young, whose Chevron station is the depot in Lovelock, Nev., says he was told his contract would end today.

Most of the tickets he sells, he said, are to prisoners released from a medium-security prison there.

As it stands, Young said, prison guards bring the freed convicts into town.

"They make sure they get on the bus, and the officer stays until the bus is gone," he said. "Now I guess they'll have to drive them to Winnemucca, 70 miles from here."

He said some elderly people without cars are shelving plans to use the bus to visit relatives.

Young says he sells about $1,200-$1,500 worth of tickets a month, of which he keeps 10%.

"It's not a huge sum," he said. "But to my thinking it doesn't make a lot of sense [to cut his stop]. They'll be driving by here anyway."

Six U.S. senators signed a letter to Greyhound president and CEO Stephen Gorman urging the line to cut fewer stops.

"As you know, many people are not able to or do not wish to drive and rely on the bus as a vital transportation mode," the letter said, adding the cuts "will have a negative impact on many of our constituents."

Geoffrey Stuckart, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the six, said many veterans from northeast Oregon use the bus to get to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Walla Walla, Wash.

"We just got an extension on the facility; now we may lose the bus connection," he said of Walla Walla, where service will be axed.

Gorman replied that the smaller routes had to be cut to provide better service on more heavily traveled routes used by the vast majority of Greyhound riders. He said some routes in Iowa and Wisconsin were losing money even with federal subsidies.

Lynn Brown, the Greyhound spokeswoman, said the cuts will eliminate about 14 million miles of the 267 million miles the company travels each year in the United States.

Although the geographical area is large, she said, it is a relatively small part of Greyhound's business. The cuts account for about 10% of Greyhound's North American stops, but only about 2.5% of its sales and 2.8% of its revenues.

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