Bus service fades away for small towns, rural areas
The dingy bus station on Dorchester Road stands in stark contrast to the gleaming, white Southeastern Stages coach pulling in from Atlanta.
Reasons for not riding
Not available in my area: 60 percentSchedule not convenient: 40 percentConcerned about safety: 17 percentDoes not go where I need to go: 33 percentToo expensive: 7 percentCan’t get to the bus station: 10 percentSurvey of 123 people by RLS & Associates
A passel of people are waiting to board. Samuel Pendleton, 40, is heading home to Roanoke, Va., after spending months here working construction jobs. Wanda Ivey, 83, of Goose Creek is bound for Nashville to pick up a car. Yvonne Andrews, 61, of Knoxville, has arrived to visit and care for two grandchildren.
“I don’t like to drive anywhere by myself. The buses are a lot better than they used to be,” Andrews said. The coaches are Wi-Fi equipped and the seats are bigger, the riders said.
Overall, though, bus transportation in South Carolina has been in sharp decline.
Statewide, the number of bus stops has fallen from 50 in 2001 to only 19. Rural areas have suffered the most, according to a consultant’s report prepared for the state Department of Transportation.
The DOT commissioned the study by RLS and Associates, which concluded that better in-state service is needed to connect South Carolina cities and towns. The report is part of a DOT effort to develop a new Statewide Intercity and Regional Bus Network Plan.
Bus service has been lost for Goose Creek, McClellanvile, Moncks Corner, St. George, St. Stephen, Estill, Gardens Corner, Hampton, Jacksonboro, the Marine Corps Air Station, Parris Island, Smoaks and Yemassee, the report said.
In addition to lost bus stops, some routes require out-of-the way trips to reach a destination. A trip from Charleston to Beaufort or Hilton Head requires taking a bus to Orangeburg or Savannah first, then making a connection on another bus going to Beaufort County.
Manning bus travelers face the prospect of traveling to Savannah before going anywhere else in South Carolina. Walterboro service to Charleston requires a bus transfer at Orangeburg.
Intercity bus-service customers tend to be enlisted military, college students and the elderly. People of all ages below the poverty line rely on the bus to go out-of-town, the report said.
Some bus stops are closed when travelers arrive. The Dillon, S.C., stop is at Lane’s Bait and Tackle Shop on Highway 301 North. Southeastern Stages pulls into Dillon at 7:45 p.m. and 9:50 p.m., but the store closes at 5:30 p.m., the report said.
A manager for Southeastern Stages in Florence said in the report that every day someone needs to go to Lake City, Kingstree, Bennettsville, Marion or Conway, but there is no service.
“When people come into Florence from other states, they have no way to get to the smaller cities in South Carolina,” said Cecelia Burbage.
More than half of 168 people surveyed in the study said there was a problem with conveniently catching a local bus after arriving by intercity bus. Locally, a half-mile walk is required from the Southeastern Stages bus station on Dorchester Road to the nearest CARTA bus stop, according to the CARTA website.
That situation will change when plans for the long-awaited North Charleston Intermodal Transportation Center on West Montague Avenue come to fruition. Recently, however, officials said funding remains an issue, and about $6 million is needed for the project, which will create a hub for local and regional buses, taxis, limousines and train service.
None of the state’s 11 Amtrak stations are served by intercity buses, and there is no scheduled intercity bus service to the state’s six commercial airports.
“Rising labor and fuel costs, along with Amtrak service expansion, have continued to challenge the intercity bus industry,” according to the report.
The decline of the intercity bus system can be traced to the opening of interstate highways, increased automobile ownership and the deterioration of downtown business districts.
As a result of the intercity bus industry’s growing financial problems, carriers supported passage of the Bus Regulatory Reform Act of 1982, which provided relief from most federal controls on ticket pricing and routes. The legislation, however, failed to resurrect the industry.
Thousands of communities, particularly in rural areas, have lost bus service since 1982. In areas where service is still available, the number of daily and weekly schedules has declined significantly. Congress in 1991 enacted transportation legislation that offered capital, operating and administrative funding to states for rural, intercity bus services.
Under the new law, states are required to spend 15 percent of Federal Nonurbanized Area Formula funds to support rural bus service unless the governor certifies that rural intercity bus needs are adequately met. The DOT consultant’s report says those needs are not being met.
Under the current federal funding formula, about $1.6 million could be available to improve rural bus service. The report recommends that DOT spend available federal and state funds on new buses, bus-related equipment such as wheelchair lifts and bus station construction and rehabilitation.
In federal fiscal year 2009, South Carolina made $740,000 in federal funds available to Southeastern Stages for the purchase of two recently-delivered buses.
Greyhound and Southeastern Stages are the only “Class A” intercity bus lines in South Carolina. Greyhound runs 15 eastbound and 12 westbound routes. Southeastern Stages has seven eastbound and seven westbound routes. Columbia, Greenville, Myrtle Beach and Orangeburg are stops for Greyhound and Southeastern Stages. Charleston is served by Southeastern Stages.
Although bus service has declined, about 90 percent of the state’s population lives within 25 miles of a bus stop. Colleges, universities, major medical facilities, prisons and airports are generally well-serviced.
At the bus station in North Charleston, Ivey said she planned to sleep during her overnight trip to Nashville.
“I prefer cars. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on the bus. Maybe 60 years. It will be kind of a treat to get on the bus again,” she said.
Andrews said she paid $89 for her nine-hour trip from Knoxville, which takes about six hours by car.
Rob Johnson, 52, a hotel maintenance man, arrived by bus from Columbia to visit his mother.
“I love it. It’s always real good,” he said. “They get you here and back. It’s real smooth.”