Bus firms ready to roll, relishing national spotlight

January 17, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Bill Clinton may be the best friend a bus ever had.

When the president-elect boards a motor coach in Virginia for his entrance into Washington today, it will be a moment in the spotlight for an industry that has long felt a bit shortchanged when it comes to respect.

Actually, it will be more like a curtain call. Representatives of the bus industry are already plenty proud that Mr. Clinton showcased the merits of bus travel last year by using them as the dominant vehicles of his presidential campaign.

First, there was the New York-to-St. Louis bus trip from the Democratic National Convention, then there was the sequel bus trip, and on and on, until it seemed Mr. Clinton and his vice presidential choice, then-Sen. Al Gore, could be found visiting more Middle America small towns by bus than Greyhound.

"All I can say is, 'Thank God.' It's a long time coming," said George T. Snyder Jr., executive vice president of the American Bus Association. "Mr. Clinton has found out what we've known all along -- that the bus is a great way to travel."

Mr. Snyder said his association planned to take out radio and print ads this week in an attempt to capitalize on the new-found respect for bus travel. He figures all the attention given the Clinton bus trips has been worth millions of dollars in free advertising for the owners of the nation's 22,000 motor coaches.

"When you say the word 'bus,' I wouldn't say smiles necessarily come to people's faces," said Mr. Snyder. "People don't know what a modern bus is like."

Greyhound Lines has also taken a cue from the president-elect and has been offering 10 percent discounts on round-trip tickets to Washington from anywhere in Arkansas or nine East Coast cities.

"We can't claim ridership has increased because of the heightened interest in bus travel, but we do anticipate that we'll pick up some business," said Bill Kula, a spokesman for Greyhound, which carried 15.5 million bus passengers last year.

Clinton campaign officials embraced the bus as an ideal way to reach out to average, small-town Americans who don't relate to limousines and private jets. Pundits labeled the tours "buscapades," examples of populist politics reminiscent of old-time, whistle-stop train trips.

Industry officials concede that the 1980s were not a great time for the image of the bus. The number of national carriers was weeded down to one, Dallas-based Greyhound Lines, which spent 17 months in bankruptcy in 1990 and 1991.

In an era of airline deregulation, buses were widely viewed as the lowest form of transportation. Even cities turned their attention more to subway and other rail projects rather than transit buses.

"I definitely think this makes a difference, that this raises the visibility of bus transportation," said Dennis M. Kouba, a spokesman for the American Public Transit Association. "The bus as a mode of transportation certainly will be higher in the public's mind after this."

Mr. Kouba said public transit buses provided about 5.7 billion passenger trips each year, about 2 1/2 times the number provided by the various forms of rail-based transit.

Inaugural committee aides said Friday they expected at least 14 buses to line up for the trip from Monticello today. The caravan will feature the same red-and-silver buses that carried the Clinton/Gore team around the country.

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