Budget bus: Starlight gears up for big changes
When A. Goff Limousine purchased luxury Charlottesville-to-New York bus service Starlight Express in 2010, general manager Dan Goff promised to give Amtrak a run for its money by offering competitive rates and expanding the round-trip bus service to the Big Apple. Less than two years later, Goff says, he's getting ready to do just that as he prepares to unveil "massive" changes that could prove a game-changer in the local transportation business.
Expanded routes and daily service are among the changes, but budget conscious travelers will undoubtedly rejoice most over another planned change: a 50 percent fare cut.
"Starlight will now be as low as $49.95 one-way to New York," says an ebullient Goff, who says there's only one thing holding him back: finding a new lot out of which to operate.
Since it was launched in 2004 by developer turned fuel-efficient-car-guru Oliver Kuttner and business partner David New, Starlight buses have run out of a warehouse parking lot on Market Street. Goff says the expanded service– which will include routes into the Shenandoah Valley as well as a connection to the Washington Metro system (and the expected increase in passengers the price cut will bring)– means he needs more space in Charlottesville for loading and parking.
The logical solution, he says, is to operate out of the Amtrak parking lot on West Main Street.
"We have to choose a place where there's good security, well-lit parking, and preferably something open," Goff explains, citing Starlight's 70-percent female ridership. "We've always heard lots of inquiries from first-time riders about security."
With its multi-acre parking lot and immediate proximity to the Amtrak station, the Amtrak lot certainly seems like a solution. There, Starlight passengers arriving from the Valley could choose between Amtrak or Starlight. Goff hopes they choose Starlight, since his new rates will trump the cheapest rates from Amtrak, which offers round-trips to New York starting at $199.
Unfortunately, Goff says, negotiating a parking deal proved impossible.
"After months of trying," says Goff, "we're just ultimately unable to come to an agreement on them letting us stop there and pick up people in front of the Amtrak."
Goff says he harbors no hard feelings toward lot owners, Charlottesville developer Gabe Silverman and his California-based partner Allan Cadgene, and describes the stalemate as "purely business" after his company wouldn't agree to contractual limitations upon which the duo insisted.
Reached by phone, California-based Cadgene says he and Silverman were surprised that Goff scoffed.
"It had conditions," Cadgene acknowledges of the contract they offered, insisting the terms weren't draconian.
"We didn't want the drop-off to interfere with Amtrak, and we didn't want him to use the lot to store his buses."
With the Amtrak lot off the table, Goff says, he's still exploring several other possible solutions including the use of a city bus stop on West Main Street, near the top of the steps leading to Amtrak. A Starlight bus pulling in there at midnight or 6am for approximately 15 minutes of pick-up or drop-off presumably wouldn't interfere with the public transportation system, which uses those stops only between 6:30am and 11pm.
At least one City Councilor likes the idea.
"I'm certainly more than happy to entertain something along those lines," says Dave Norris. "If there's a way we can make it work, I'd love to see it happen."
Goff says he hopes to soon kick off the new pricing and new routes, which would include a one-way trip to Dunn Loring for as low as $29.95. The Fairfax town is a Metro connection, so it opens a whole new wave of transportation options including quick subway rides to Reagan National Airport and the myriad passenger trains leaving Union Station.
Such a forward leap in connectivity helps explain why Charlottesville's top rail booster expresses enthusiasm.
"Whatever gets people out of their cars and into public transportation is an option we should embrace," says Meredith Richards. "I think there's room enough for everybody at the table here."
Now all Goff needs is a place to put a bus near the train station.
"The day we get to move," Goff says, "is the day we'll put this all in effect."