116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
One issue I’ve thought about as a shortcoming in Iowa’s intercity transportation market is the lack of options, and by extension, competition, among different firms. By now, Iowa’s intercity bus system has settled into a sort of stagnant equilibrium with Burlington Trailways providing east-west service and Jefferson Lines traveling north-south for the small ridership base with nowhere else to go. Although these two firms deserve some credit for being some of the last ones standing after virtually all other bus companies have either folded or withdrew from the state, there is the sense that neither firm is particularly concerned with keeping pace with potential competitors. After all, how much does an hour-late bus really matter if it’s the only one around?
As a corollary, Bellingham, a college town with a population of around 90,000 in western Washington state — not dissimilar in size to Cedar Rapids or Iowa City — has a multitude of intercity transit options by virtue of being located in between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. In addition to a legacy twice-daily Greyhound bus, up to three additional daily services are provided by Amtrak and FlixBus — the latter being a German firm which only began service on the Pacific coast this past month.
For the most part, new market entries such as FlixBus have largely avoided Iowa or exited the state years ago, as was the case with Megabus. As much of the intercity bus industry’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has taken place through these smaller, new, nimbler firms, this means travelers in Iowa largely remain stuck using an increasingly archaic legacy system.
Perhaps given the large baked-in preference for driving in Iowa and a smaller, more dispersed population than the Pacific coast, it would be unreasonable for multiple private firms to make a business case to provide comprehensive intercity transportation service in Iowa. But if a private intercity bus market has already resulted in a natural monopoly in the provision of services, and still is reliant on government funding regardless (the Iowa Department of Transportation provides monetary support to all operating intercity bus firms for capital projects and to support operations), it might be worthwhile considering a more active role by the state in providing essential transportation services.
Again, Washington state could be instructive here. Beyond the densely populated Seattle metropolitan area, much of the state is quite rural, in an area over 27 percent larger than that of Iowa’s. Through the Travel Washington Intercity Bus Program, four lines provide essential service to rural areas, mostly in the eastern part of the state, including on routes previously abandoned by private firms such as Greyhound. Ironically operated in conjunction with private providers such as Greyhound, service remains infrequent (running once to three times daily), what the service does provide is connections to existing private-sector bus lines, airports, ferries, and passenger rail from places which would not have alternatives to driving otherwise.
Indeed, the history of intercity public rail in the U.S., and its culmination into the government-operated corporation Amtrak in 1971 after close to a decade of discussions, could serve as a model on what to do with intercity bus companies in poor shape. Initially formed from 20 of 26 dying private intercity passenger operations still in service, Amtrak was actually formed by the Nixon administration more so as a politically expedient send off for passenger rail than a serious proposal for protecting passenger rail in the U.S. However, since then, Amtrak has since survived, and even thrived in some respects. Indeed, Amtrak even operates its own buses, under the name of Thruways, to the point where I have ridden on an Amtrak bus more frequently than an Amtrak train. Now that privately-operated intercity buses seem to be approaching straits as dire as the passenger trains decades ago, perhaps now it is time for the federal government to consider nationalizing intercity bus services, either under Amtrak Thruways or as its own separate corporation.
There is currently one Thruway bus service touching Iowa, from Davenport to the California Zephyr and Southwest Chief at Galesburg, Illinois, which run from San Francisco-Chicago and Los Angeles-Chicago, respectively. The Iowa DOT’s rail plan suggests the formation of new Thruway routes, such as north-south along I-35 in between the Twin Cities and Kansas City and east-west along I-80 in between Chicago and Omaha, passing through Iowa right in the middle. Not only would this provide some competitive impetus for the current legacy operators to step up their service, this would also directly link major Iowa cities with Amtrak service elsewhere, improve the frequency of service along these routes, and give Amtrak a foothold into corridors where Iowan governments have now spent more than a decade waffling over reviving passenger rail service in these areas.
The circumstances for the formation of a unified, nationalized intercity bus service are similar to those of Amtrak and passenger rail in 1970. Intercity bus services, particularly the cross-country legacy services most present in Iowa and rural areas, have been in dire financial straits long before the pandemic, and have responded by cutting routes, service, and quality. Survey data from Iowa’s state transportation plan ranks intercity bus dead last in virtually all indicators, including accessibility, reliability, and public interest. There remains a fundamental need for intercity public transit, including by bus — for reasons of accessibility, affordability, and climate action. Absent a clear path to sustainable, reliable operations from Greyhound and other comparable firms, a public corporation assuming responsibility for these routes begins to look increasingly appealing.
And given that virtually all transportation, aside from maybe walking or bicycling, is subsidized to some extent, either through government or private capital, it would not be so far of a stretch to apply the Amtrak model to buses. Such a system would not preclude private bus lines from operating still — after all, even with Amtrak, the private rail line Brightline operates in Florida — but rather provide a base guaranteed level of service across the country.
For all of its faults — and there are a lot of them — there is a certain romanticism that does come from treating the bus, at least conceptually, as a path to freedom and opportunity for those in limiting circumstances. From Red breaking his parole at the end of “The Shawshank Redemption,” to Sam Cooke’s “Somebody Have Mercy,” to a line in “Another Day of Sun” in “La La Land.” Such optimism for the potential of intercity bus seems to have disappeared Iowa. Whereas planning documents from the 1970s and 80s point to the collection of a corpus of data and planning for hypotheticals which would make intercity bus travel in Iowa more appealing, such as express service and regional corridor routes, contemporary planning suggests only recognition of the social and climate benefits of supporting intercity bus service, and not much else.
If the Iowa of 40 years ago seems to have cared more about the bus — a relatively small part of the transportation emissions and mobility puzzle — than Iowans today, what does that say about our capacity to deal with social problems of any scale?
Austin Wu is a Gazette Editorial Fellow.