The road less traveled by bus webmin roanoke.com electricity billy elliot

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The future of the bus, the only one that travels between Roanoke and Blacksburg with a few stops in between, hinges on funding. As the Smart Way, managed by Valley Metro, hits its first anniversary of paid service Tuesday, it’s beginning a countdown to the day the cash flow could go dry.

Grant money geared toward giving the program its test run is slated to run out within the next year, putting Valley Metro in a position to apply for further grants and to ask area municipalities for matching cash, said Dave Morgan, Valley Metro‘s general manager.

Creamer and what he described as a "handful" of other regular riders helped make up the Smart Way’s passenger total for the year: 22,981 paid rider trips between Aug. 2, 2004, and June 30, said Donna Chamberlain, Valley Metro spokeswoman for the Smart Way program.

To break even, the bus would need to carry 16 passengers each way. But its projected ridership for the coming year is still only about five people per run, Morgan said. Current ridership numbers indicate the Smart Way isn’t going to be able to support itself anytime soon.

David Woodall-Gainey has seen ridership vary between one and 15 to 20 people since he began riding the bus in September. A software developer with Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture, Woodall-Gainey often spends his mornings with a small cast of familiar characters.

After Valley Metro received a state demonstration grant a few years ago, Morgan and Roanoke City Manager Darlene Burcham began discussions with the New River Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization, which manages public transportation throughout the New River Valley. The demonstration grant money, with matching funds from Roanoke, carried the program through its first year, Morgan said.

Even after the MPO approved the bus, members of Blacksburg Town Council scoffed at the idea of running a route between the valleys. Hedgepeth, who sits on the MPO, said he thinks there might be better ways to get people from one valley to another.

If the bus doesn’t make it past next summer, Woodall-Gainey isn’t going to give up on alternative transportation. He car pooled for about 15 years, and he’ll try to return to sharing rides, even though he said it’s less convenient than just hopping on the bus.

As it is, Erin Hofberg, program manager for Ride Solutions, which operates in Alleghany, Botetourt, Craig, Franklin, Roanoke and Montgomery counties, has seen steadily increasing ridership of and interest in the Smart Way. Hofberg also has a list of 212 registered area commuters in about 80 car pools – the most she’s ever managed.

This heightening interest in alternative transportation might have something to do with the continual climb in gasoline prices, which have jumped about 38 cents nationwide during the past year, according to the Energy Information Administration, a statistical branch of the U.S. Department of Energy.

But Hofberg said saving money, saving time driving and even saving the environment often aren’t enough to spur people out of their routine. "I think a lot of it is that people have a hard time breaking old habits, and if you have a car, you want to drive it."

Once people take a chance on the Smart Way, though, they seem satisfied, Chamberlain said. And they often come back for another ride. Hofberg, who manages survey data for the bus program, said almost 70 percent of riders are very satisfied with the service.