A Virginia Breeze bus. Courtesy of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Ridership on the Virginia Breeze intercity bus service has been rebounding, with overall ridership up 56% from March 2021 to March 2022, according to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The dpeartment launched the Virginia Breeze intercity bus program in 2017. The Virginia Breeze started with the Valley Flyer (Blacksburg-Washington), and then added two new routes — the Piedmont Express (Danville-Washington) and Capital Connector (Martinsville-Richmond-Washington) — in summer 2020. The Highlands Rhythm route connecting Bristol and Washington launched in November 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the intercity bus industry hard, including the Virginia Breeze halting its service for almost four months from April to July 2020. Since then, ridership has steadily increased on all four routes, according to the department. In March of this year, 4,834 people traveled on the Virginia Breeze across the state.

Ridership for the Valley Flyer, which runs along Interstate 81 in western Virginia and is the busiest Virginia Breeze route, has returned to levels seen prior to the pandemic. In March 2022, the route had 2,561 total passengers (they either went northbound or southbound). Blacksburg (which is a start/stop location) is the busiest stop, with 857 passengers departing there northbound, and 817 people arriving there as their destination southbound. Harrisonburg – being near JMU – is also a popular stop; it served as the departure location for 325 people going northbound in March 2022, and it was the destination for 297 people traveling southbound that same month.

To compare, ridership was 2,547 in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. From there, the Breeze experienced a deep plunge in ridership, with service stopping from April 5 to July 24, 2020. Ridership steadily increased, and it’s back to that pre-pandemic level. In October 2021, the Valley Flyer had its highest ridership to date, with 2,973 passengers.

In March, the Piedmont Express had its highest ridership since beginning service in August 2020 with 611 total passengers. To compare, ridership had only been in the double-digits for the first couple months it launched, and it wasn’t until August 2021 that it reached over 300 riders (342 riders).

The Capital Connector also saw year-over-year growth. It launched in August 2020 with 190 riders and has steadily increased since then. The average monthly ridership in 2021 was 452 passengers. In March 2022 it had 536 total passengers.

And the Highlands Rhythm has nearly doubled its ridership since the route started. It launched in November 2021 with 639 riders. It had 1,126 total passengers in March 2022.

The Virginia Breeze program is funded through the Federal Transit Administration’s Intercity Bus Program. Additionally, the Highlands Rhythm, which travels along most of Interstate 81, was among the first multimodal projects to receive funding through the Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Program. The program aims to make infrastructure and safety improvements to Interstate 81 and support alternative modes of transportation to get more cars off of the crowded highway and reduce the number of incidents. The Interstate 81 funding offsets a portion of the Highlands Rhythm operating costs and will fund improvements at some stop locations.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is currently conducting a study to explore the possibility of adding a fifth Virginia Breeze route, serving eastern Virginia.

For more information on the Virginia Breeze, including how to purchase tickets, visit virginiabreeze.org.