Starlight, star bright: New way to NYC

Start spreading the news: It won't be long till our little town blues will be melting away, thanks to the Starlight Express, a luxury bus that will take passengers nonstop from downtown Charlottesville to downtown Manhattan in about six and a half hours.

And even better than that, says Starlight co-owner David New, you'll ride in style. (As will your fellow passengers, thanks to the Starlight dress code, which prohibits torn or dirty clothing.)

New, creator of Root 66 Root Beer, partnered with downtown developer and racecar aficionado Oliver Kuttner for this motorized venture.

He says PBM products, the Gordonsville corporation best known for producing generic baby formula, took over operations of Root 66 last summer. Though New still has an ownership stake in the root beer biz, taking the product to the national level proved too much "for the little guy."

Instead, he says, he decided to leave day-to-day operations (and big expansion plans) to PBM and began seeking out a new project – and finding a new partner along the way.

"We both like to get our hands dirty," says New of Kuttner.

There's no shortage of dirt– and motor oil– as the two work daily to convert a former Trailways bus into something a bit more luxurious.

New is scouring the country for beige leather BMW seats out of the 500 and 700 series cars. Instead of the standard 48 seats on a Greyhound/Trailways bus, Kuttner and New have cut that number to 24, making more leg room and space for seats to recline.

Though the bus's final design is still undetermined, the two say they're looking into the possibility of having a movie screen at the front with headphones for each seat, and also perhaps wireless Internet access.

How much will a trip north in this luxury coach cost?

"More than a bus, less than the plane," says Kuttner. New gets more specific. "We're considering $99 for a one-way ticket," he says.

How does that stack up against other travel options?

Let's use the fares for a last minute Friday to Sunday trip.

A round-trip Greyhound bus ticket from Charlottesville to New York runs $119. (It drops to $98 if you buy a week in advance.) Affordable? Sure, but it'll take at least nine hours each way to get there, with a transfer in D.C. and the bus stopping no less than 10 times.

If money's no issue, you could fly and get there in under two hours. But if you don't plan far in advance, it'll take a $695.21 bite out of your budget. And that doesn't include the $30+ cab fare you'll have to pony up to get to and from LaGuardia. Planning in advance brings the fare down to $353.20– still not chump change.

In the end, it seems, the Starlight Express is most comparable to Amtrak. The cost for the train? About $200 for an adult fare. (Planning ahead could drop that down to under $150). Even the ride time is similar-­ about seven hours. But, as anyone who's taken the Cardinal knows, on its long trip in from Chicago, delays can stretch into hours, making a short weekend getaway shorter.

Kuttner agrees that the train is the competition. But, he says, the Starlight has an advantage: "It's like a nice train that runs on time and never stops."

Another advantage of the Starlight is the flexibility.

"You could walk up to the door and pay for your ticket," says Kuttner, who, with New, plans to add a second bus to the Starlight fleet soon after the first one begins running.

In the end, the Starlight's success will ride on one thing: customer demand.

Do you want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep? New and Kuttner are hoping your answer is yes.

David New with the future Starlight Express