Starlight sold: New owner bets on bus travel
For six years, the Starlight Express, brainchild of entrepreneurs Oliver Kuttner and David New, has ferried passengers to New York City and back. The two have sold their locally grown bus service to Ruckersville-based A. Goff Limo, and the new owner stands ready to get in Amtrak's face for Charlottesville-to-NYC travelers.
Dan Goff is so confident that passengers will choose the bus over train that after the holidays, he plans to put the Starlight's pick-up/drop-off point, which has been on East Market Street, literally in Amtrak's face at its station on West Main Street.
"That's the center of the city," says Goff. "We don't have a physical location on Market Street."
And although the unpaved parking lot at the Amtrak station has been a source of controversy for years now, it does offer more parking, says Goff, in a location where passengers can wait for their departure in restaurants and find multiple transportation options when the bus returns at midnight.
Since purchasing the bus company in a deal consummated in August, Goff (whose wife, Ana, founded A. Goff in 2000) has added newer coaches with better wi-fi and replaced ice-filled coolers with bolted-down refrigerators for drinks and snacks.
"A six-and-a-half hour drive, and you're in New York," says Goff, noting that's comparable to Amtrak stated travel time. "We have a better on-time record," he adds.
Starlight is $99 each way or $179 round trip. Amtrak's roundtrip fares range from $120 when purchased well in advance for non-weekend travel to $310. (Greyhound, which takes a minimum of 14 hours to make the journey, can go as low as $120 round-trip.)
"If we lose five percent of our passengers to Amtrak, and they lose five percent to us, that's a big win for us," says Goff.
Starlight founder Kuttner has gone on to develop a prototype for a fuel-efficient car of the future that recently won the $5-million X Prize. New, creator of Root 66 Root Beer, says he will remain partners with Kuttner on some real estate in Lynchburg.
"It was time," says New. "It needed to go to another level. It needed to be two to three times bigger. We're not manager types–- we started a very cool business and had a nice niche. It did well for awhile, then the economy took the wind out of our sails."
Meanwhile, A. Goff Limo has been quietly assembling a regional transportation business, says Dan Goff. It started out with limousines and has the second largest fleet in Virginia, according to its website. A. Goff has acquired eight livery companies, including Royal Motor Cars out of Crozet, Executive Limousine, and Van on the Go airport shuttle. The company offers service to all of Virginia, parts of North Carolina and Maryland, and now New York.
Goff says he was in discussion with Starlight three years ago but got spooked when Amtrak announced it would add trains to Charlottesville. But when he looked at the numbers nearly a year after Amtrak launched the new state-subsidized service, he saw no dent in Starlight's ridership. Another thing that worried Goff about running buses was a spike in gas prices, but even that turned to have a silver lining.
"That drives ridership through the roof," enthuses Goff. "Peak ridership is when gas is highest."
The Starlight acquisition has only fueled Goff's ambitions. He knows many UVA students and staff have northern Virginia connections, so other options include adding a stop at the West Falls Church Metro station. That would also allow connections to the D.C. airports and to Amtrak's Union Station.
"We think the lowest cost to get to Dulles is $175 by van," says Goff. "A shuttle would be around $40 each way, and that's a huge difference."
The company is also eyeing the idea of servicing Harrisonburg, which, along with Staunton and Lexington, provides a lot of customers who already drive over to catch the Starlight Express. A shuttle for commuters who work in Richmond is another possibility.
"The future of transportation is in the past–- intercity bus transportation," declares Goff, citing the so-called Chinatown bus lines that pick up passengers along city curbsides for low-cost travel between such cities as Richmond, Washington, New York, and Boston.
"Those operators said we need a corner, not a $3-million terminal," says Goff. Maintaining that motor coaches are the "greenest" way to travel, Goff also notes buses don't require the expensive, public subsidies and dedicated paths that trains do.
"There's no question the public subsidizes buses and trucks," counters train advocate Meredith Richards. "The infrastructure is publicly owned and publicly provided." And buses and trucks pay fuel taxes to help pay for roads, she adds.
Nor does Richards believe that buses are greener. "As far as their fuel efficiency, I'd challenge anyone," says Richards.
But she does think there's room enough for both Amtrak and Starlight on the New York route, as their combined schedules create flexibility that should help get more cars off the road.
"I know people who take the train to New York and return on the Starlight Express," says Richards. "And I like the idea of multi-modal transportation from the Amtrak station."
As for former owner New, he hasn't quite gotten the Starlight Express out of his life. "I'm going to New York on Thursday," he says.
Updated 1:30pm November 30 with different photograph and corrected Amtrak fares.