The Drive: Outstate bus travel makes a comeback

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2014 - 7:53 PM
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Jan. 14, 2013: Jefferson Lines passengers, drivers and staff were greeted with refreshments, welcoming the regional transportation company to the landmark Union Depot. Today was the first day for passenger service for the Jefferson Lines.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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For the past 95 years, Jefferson Lines has quietly gone about its business of providing intercity bus transportation for residents in 67 cities and towns in Minnesota and several cities beyond state lines.

But it’s only now that the Minneapolis-based company founded by the grandfather of state Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle is ready to raise its profile. And why not? After all, taking the bus is back in vogue.

A recent report from DePaul University shows that buses are the fastest growing mode of city-to-city transportation in the United States. Based on available-seat miles, it surpassed the growth of Amtrak (0.6 percent) and airlines (1 percent). Jefferson experienced an 8 percent growth. The report attributed much of the growth to expanded offerings by companies such as Megabus.com, which has lucrative fares and growing product awareness, something Jefferson plans to do.

“We have been low profile, but I have no problem being more bold,” said Kevin Pursey, Jefferson’s director of marketing. “We want to build brand awareness.”

A spring marketing effort is still taking shape, Pursey said, but the campaign will contain several components, including meeting with mayors, connecting with senior centers, developing partnerships with rural transit providers, improving signage at pickup locations and increasing its presence on social media sites. The company will also participate in state tourism promotions, and it plans to get schedules on Google Transit and other online bus schedule aggregators.

This year, Jefferson expanded into Montana and launched new service from Grand Rapids to Duluth with stops in Hibbing and Virginia. Its College Connection express service to the Twin Cities is now offered at 25 schools.

Jefferson buses are more plush these days with leather seats that recline, more leg room and Wi-Fi. Its biggest selling points, however, are fares that substantially undercut the cost of flying or driving.

DePaul’s 2013 “Motoring Into the Mainstream” review of intercity bus services found bus fares were 52 percent lower than rail fares and 79 percent cheaper than advance-purchased airfares. The report found it was 38 percent less expensive to ride the bus than drive. The study found that the average cost of a one-way trip by bus was $30.53, compared with $64.19 by rail and $145.23 by plane.

“The car is our No. 1 competitor and it’s an expense people can eliminate,” Pursey said. “For that kind of money, people are saying, ‘I’m taking the bus.’ ”

Jefferson enjoyed an 8 percent jump in ridership miles in 2013, up to 125,276,000 from 116,196,880 in 2012.

There might never have been a younger generation that is more mobile and less car-dependent than this one. Recognizing that passengers will need transportation once they reach their destination, Pursey said, Jefferson is looking to modify its fleet to include space for bicycles much like the light-rail trains do now. It’s also looking to help connect passengers with car-sharing programs such as Car2Go, Hourcar, Zipcar and the new Lyft service that started in Minneapolis last week.

Big things are happening at Jefferson’s headquarters and they’ll not be keeping them a secret.

“We’ve been very Minnesotan,” said spokeswoman Becky Alper. “We have momentum and we are trying to build on that.”

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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