April webinar recap: Intercity buses and state DOTs

By Robbie Webber

The April 24 SSTI webinar on intercity buses and the role of state DOTs yielded exciting ideas about how states can facilitate improved connections and service. We were joined in the webinar by MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and MassDOT staff member Kyle Emge, who runs the MassDOT BusPlus program, to talk about this important transportation option for longer-distance travel.

Charlie Zelle’s knowledge of intercity buses comes not just from being the MnDOT Commissioner, but also from his background running Jefferson Bus Lines, a family business that operates throughout the central part of the country. Commissioner Zelle talked about the changing role of buses in multimodal travel and the need to connect to transit, other bus lines, air travel, rail, and local transportation connections. Online scheduling, ticketing, and mapping of the various options have made these connections much easier and more intuitive. Besides the beautiful Amtrak depot in downtown St. Paul that now serves as a multimodal station, the Minneapolis airport—a national airline hub—can also serve as a major hub for bus travel in the region.

States are also starting to assist in joint ticketing, marketing, and mapping to make through-connections easier to arrange. MassDOT has been very active in coordinating travel across New England and with other state DOTs. Not only is MassDOT ensuring that riders can find routes and other transportation options that connect to their destinations, but they are also subsidizing new service to strengthen the options throughout the region.

For a number of years a MassDOT program has helped purchase buses for underserved areas. That program got a boost with a 2011 federal grant to update the buses in the program. The buses provided through the program have a standard look on the inside, have the MassDOT BusPlus logo along with the private carrier branding, are all listed on the MassDOT site, and participate in a standardized ticketing program.

To encourage additional service to underserved areas, companies that add service or routes can get new buses at no cost. The number of buses a company can receive is based on how much the service is needed to fill gaps. Through the BusPlus program, 18 new round trips have been added without MassDOT incurring any additional operating expenses.

In order to help passengers find the routes they need, MassDOT has paid for all the marketing for the new service provided. This includes radio, newspaper, billboards, and web ads.

A new map of all service throughout New England was recently released. Although many people are accustomed to using Google and other online mapping programs to find local transit, driving, and walking routes, many intercity bus routes are not yet available in a central location. MassDOT found that people didn’t know service existed on some routes, so they made it a priority to get the information out to people in a single location. The maps also list other connections available at each stop such as local transit, bike share and bike parking, other intercity services, rail, park-and-ride lots, etc.

A recording of the webinar is available on our website with more information on what state DOTs can do to improve intercity bus programs and help connect communities.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.