The Virginia Breeze looks past pandemic doldrums

In a March 2019 file photo, riders board the Virginia Breeze bus at JMU

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

It’s a quiet January Tuesday at the public transit hub outside of James Madison University’s Godwin Hall, where in more normal times, students would be waiting with bags loaded for the Virginia Breeze to take them back home. These are not normal times, though; no one is waiting for the bus, and the only breeze around is the bitter winter sort.

In addition to JMU’s class schedule postponed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the transit line, which runs all the way to Union Station in Washington, D.C.,  was suspended last week due to heightened security around the presidential inauguration.

It’s been a year full of challenges for the Virginia Breeze, which runs from Blacksburg to D.C., and back, with Harrisonburg smack dab in the middle. Before the pandemic shut down the service for several months in 2020, ridership had surpassed all expectations since it launched in late 2017. 

“We had ridership that was more than double our initial projections when we were developing the initial route,” said Jennifer Debruhl, chief of public transportation for Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transit (DRPT), which operates the Virginia Breeze. “So that clearly showed there was a lot of demand in the I-81 Corridor for alternative modes of transportation, particularly intermodal connections with Dulles Airport for air travel and to Union Station in DC for those traveling further up the Northeast corridor.”

The Citizen reported on the success of the new transit in March 2019, as ridership through November 2018 totalled 19,300 – triple the DRPT’s original estimate. At the time, JMU students made up 24 percent of riders on the southbound bus, and Harrisonburg was its second-most-popular southbound stop. 

Along came COVID

Ridership on the Virginia Breeze increased to 24,532 in fiscal year 2019, and grew slightly to 24,790 last fiscal year, according to the DRPT’s report for FY 2020. That prompted the DRPT to plan two new regional routes elsewhere in the state, until COVID-19 put a halt to things.

In an email to The Citizen, DRPT spokesperson Haley Glynn said the Virginia Breeze saw a decrease in ridership in March 2020, the bus line’s first since starting in December 2017. 

“With the onset of the pandemic, we began to see ridership start to fall, dropping by 6.53% prior to suspending our service in April 2020,” Glynn wrote.

The Virginia Breeze suspended service between last April through the end of July, when service on the Blacksburg-to-DC route resumed under the new name, the Valley Flyer, to distinguish itself from the planned new routes. New protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19 also meant reducing the maximum number of passengers allowed on the bus at one time. 

“They normally carry 56 passengers, so we were looking at half that once service resumed,” Debruhl said. 

Although she described their expectations for ridership as tempered, Debruhl said the number of passengers on the translit line began to increase again once service resumed. 

“The messaging was, and still is, that people should be staying home and not traveling as much, so we see that reflected in our numbers and that’s completely expected. However, we did see a growth in ridership picking up in August and going towards the end of last calendar year,” Debruhl said. 

Model for growth

The two additional transit routes modeled on the Breeze’s initial success debuted in August. While the Valley Flyer runs the original north- and southbound routes in the I-81 corridor, the Piedmont Express takes passengers between Danville and Washington, D.C. along the US 29 and I-66 corridors, and the Capitol Connector runs from Martinsville to Richmond along the US 58 and I-83 corridors before continuing to D.C. via I-95. 

Although ridership began inching up in the second half of last year, DeBruhl said the number of passengers began to decrease again around the holidays as COVID-19 cases began to increase again. 

“Again, we think it’s very responsible that people aren’t traveling as much in light of the impact of the pandemic, so I would say we are right where we expected to be, we take those protocols very seriously,” Debruhl said. 

To accommodate spikes in demand – such as the weekend of January 15-17, when many students began returning to universities – the Virginia Breeze increased the number of buses on its routes in order to maintain appropriate distance between riders.

According to Debruhl, that flexibility is possible thanks to a contractor who works with the bus line and is able to scale the bus service based on demand. This has also been crucial during other instances such as the security around the Presidential Inauguration, and students having to suddenly return home after cases began to spike on campuses across Virginia early last semester.

“We’re able to adapt. So, if there’s a change in university schedules or an increased demand, we’re able to provide additional buses to meet that demand. I think that’s part of what makes the model we have for the Virginia Breeze work so well for us, because we are actively able to make decisions to help meet travel needs for the corridor,” Debruhl said. 

The DRPT’s budget for FY 2021 allocates $136.9 million to its regional bus lines, out of a total budget of $1,076.2 million. According to Debruhl, federal pandemic relief money has helped to offset revenue losses associated with the pandemic.

“Through [the CARES ACT funding] we were able to maintain our service level and help insulate from some of the declines in revenue we’ve been seeing, so that’s enabling us to continue providing a viable service,” Debruhl said. 

It will probably be a full year before the DRPT knows the pandemic’s full impact on the Virginia Breeze as this FY 2020 report only covers the first six months of the year, and service was temporarily suspended for the last three. Still, in that temporary absence of hard data, Glynn said the DRPT has high hopes for the Virginia Breeze in 2021, in an email to The Citizen

“We are optimistic that ridership will be restored to pre-pandemic levels following the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine,” she Glynn. 

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