Jan. 20 buses booked

Up to 10,000 charters are expected in D.C. for inauguration

December 24, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@balltsun.com

Most of the year, Rodney James is in the van business - performing such tasks as shuttling Baltimore hotel guests to the airport.

But come Inauguration Day, James will be transformed into a charter bus entrepreneur - with plans to transport as many as 550 people from Baltimore and the Eastern Shore to the swearing-in ceremony for President-elect Barack Obama aboard 10 leased motor coaches.

James' mini-fleet will be joining a horde of thousands of charter buses expected to rumble into the Washington region for the festivities surrounding the Jan. 20 inauguration of the first African-American to be elected president of the United States and the first Democrat to hold that office in eight years. Millions of Americans are expected to jam Washington's Mall that weekend, and more than a half-million are expected to arrive by charter bus.

"People want to witness history," said James, president of Sabian Associates of Baltimore.

Presidential inaugurals generally provide a boost to charter bus companies in Maryland and surrounding jurisdictions, but people in the business say they've never seen the level of excitement as high as it is this year.

Eron Shosteck, senior vice president of the American Bus Association, said his trade group is expecting as many as 10,000 buses to descend on Washington for the weekend.

"We're getting calls daily from our operators who have a groundswell of interest from their customers that they say is unprecedented," she said.

Steve Klika, president of the International Motor Coach Group, a network of some 60 high-end charter carriers including Maryland's Eyre Bus, Tours and Travel, said buses are in heavy demand for that weekend as far west as St. Louis and Wisconsin.

"It is busy. It seems like we just got off the hurricanes down in Texas and all of a sudden our folks are bracing up for another major movement," he said.

When they get to the Washington area on Jan. 20, few of the charters will be able to get close to the Mall. Most will likely be steered to staging areas outside the downtown area - some, perhaps, in Maryland. Officials from federal, state and local agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are still wrestling with the question of where to bring the buses and how to get their passengers from those locations to the Mall.

"It's going to be hard getting in and hard getting out, and it's going to take a lot of patience," said Ron Dillon Sr., president of Dillon's Bus Service.

Dillon, whose Hanover company has a fleet of 117 buses, said he already has 140 bookings for inauguration weekend and expects to sell out.

James said the anticipation that something big was in the offing motivated him to take a leap of faith three days before the Nov. 4 election and lease 10 buses from Dillon's on a hunch he'd be able to fill them all.

So far, James said, he has leased six of those buses to groups planning to take part in the ceremony. He's charging $40 per round trip for each rider from Baltimore and $60 each for passengers on the bus he's sending to the Eastern Shore. He said he's making the rounds of Baltimore churches, schools and hotels to fill the other seats.

Among James' customers is Alice Torriente, who served as Baltimore co-chair for Women for Obama. "We just wanted to be part of this history-making event," said Torriente, whose work on behalf of the Obama campaign kept her busy knocking on doors, working the phones and registering voters in hotly contested Pennsylvania.

According to Torriente, it wasn't easy to find transportation to the event.

"We tried to get buses and they were all gone," she said. "I called and I called and I called."

Finally, she took her mother to a hairdresser and saw a flier that led her to Sabian Associates. She reserved two buses and expects to add a third.

Many charter operators will be directed to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, the former home of the Washington Redskins, in Southeast Washington, where buses will discharge passengers who will then connect with the Metro subway. But James said he's made arrangements to lease parking for his buses at Capitol Street and New York Avenue - a few blocks from the Capitol. He said he's looking into arranging shuttle service for older passengers who might have difficulty walking.

"You have to do your homework real fast for something like this," he said.

Edythe Harris, president of Pro-Tran in Fort Washington in Prince George's County, said her company's three buses are fully booked for the entire inauguration weekend and the following week. She said that as far as she knows, "it's just not possible" to charter a bus in the Washington area. When potential clients call, she said she can't even think of another company that could help.

"We're totally booked," she said. "This is kind of too late to be calling."

Connie Buck, charter manager for Glenelg-based Eyre, said she's gotten calls from as far as North Carolina from people who can't find buses.

"Anything that's a 10-hour drive or less from here, people are busing in," she said.

Like many in her business, Buck is still sweating the logistical details of how to get her passengers to places they need to be. Information is scarce, she said, and there are concerns that the Washington Metro and its parking lots will be overwhelmed by the turnout.

Dillon - a veteran of the Million Man March, papal visits, previous inaugurations and other big Washington events - said he's confident everything will work out.

"We've been through this before. It may be a little longer than before, but D.C. does a good job of getting everybody in and out," he said.

After more than three decades in the business, Dillon said he still enjoys inaugurals. "They're challenging, but it pays the bills," he said.

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