It’s 11:30 a.m. and the sun beats down on the concrete like a sledgehammer on a tent peg.
Clustered at the side of the driveway of the closed Charlottesville Greyhound bus terminal are three ticketed passengers, standing with their luggage in sparse shade. Their bus is supposed to arrive at 11:55 a.m. and depart at 12:05 p.m. for Richmond. From there, they will transfer to a Virginia Beach-bound bus.
“This is ridiculous. There’s no place to sit but on the brick wall, and if you go over it, it’s a long way down and then when you hit, you’re gonna roll right onto the railroad tracks,” says Ernest, who is waiting with his travel partner, Sharon. The couple is making the return trip of a two-way fare, heading back to Virginia Beach after a few days seeing friends.
Darnellia, who goes by D, is not a travel companion of the others but is taking the same route to Virginia Beach to see friends and family. She knows Sharon from her time in Charlottesville and, as it turns out, some of Ernest’s family in Norfolk.
The trio asked that only their first names be used.
“We came up here from Virginia Beach to get away and see some people because we both used to live up here and I had a couple of days off,” Ernest says. “I’d rather take the train but Amtrak is expensive and we had to pay for someplace to stay and food, so the bus was it.”
“I don’t know why they had to close it,” Sharon says, looking at the empty building. “It makes it hard to ride the bus. I think it’s a shame.”
Charlottesville’s Greyhound bus terminal, built in 1945, was shuttered in February as the bus line reeled from a nearly 80% COVID-19-related reduction in ridership. Now, all passengers must buy their tickets online and wait by the Ridge Street sidewalk.
Charlottesville’s station is not the only one to close. Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, Roanoke, South Hill and Springfield stations have closed, too.
In Lynchburg, Petersburg, Woodbridge, Virginia Beach, Hampton and Wytheville, Greyhound operations have moved to local transit centers or convenience stores.
“While we are unable to share details at this time, we can confirm Greyhound is currently exploring options to relocate its Charlottesville terminal,” said Crystal Booker, a spokeswoman with the bus line.
The station closures are cost-saving efforts for the struggling company.
“Greyhound has been immensely impacted by the effects of COVID-19,” the company said in a statement in December. “From temporary and permanent closures of routes to sudden workforce reductions, our ability to provide critical service to communities, especially those that are underserved and/or rural, has been reduced.”
Scotland-based First Group owns Greyhound and sister company Greyhound Canada. The corporation has been under pressure from activist stockholders since 2019 to sell off the bus business. Although there have been talks, there have been no takers.
In May, First Group closed all operations of the Canadian subsidiary, citing pandemic-related losses.
“A full year without revenue has unfortunately made it impossible to continue,” Stuart Kendrick, senior vice president of Greyhound Canada, said in a May statement.
It’s 12:55 p.m. The bus is an hour late. The temperature has climbed from 87 degrees to 93. Ridge Street traffic is heavy and slow-and-go. The exhaust from idling engines combines with the heat off the street until standing at the stop makes you feel like a chicken leg in an air fryer.
“This is rough. I took a shower before I came up here and now I’m going to need another one when I get there,” D says. “They need to figure something out. There’s got to be some better way for people to get to where they need to get.”
The three huddle near a waist-high brick retaining wall, taking advantage of the slim shade thrown by the scraggily, thin trees growing up from the railroad tracks some 20 feet below. The trees provide some shade, but also serve as a swell transportation corridor for ants and other insects.
Ernest hurriedly swats at the air, ducking and juking at a big winged insect buzzing past his head, jumping and twisting as if in a modern dance recital. He doesn’t like insects in the least.
“That was a wasp,” he says with a gasp, describing in detail the many dangerous attributes of his airborne nemesis.
D dances a two-step as a black garden ant crosses her flip-flop-shod foot. She shares Ernest’s dislike of crawling critters and shudders for a second or two as he moves from the heinous aspects of wasps to the stinger attack methods of yellow jackets and hornets.
A few minutes of silence fall. The heat moves the trio back into the shade and closer to the brick wall.
“Man, it’s hot out here,” Ernest says. “And there’s nowhere to get water. You have to walk a couple of blocks to the convenience store, and they’re charging like $1.45 for small can of Coke.”
“I’m glad I forgot my [sodas] at home because if I was drinking them, I’d need a bathroom,” D says, looking around the empty spaces. “You know, it’s a good thing I used the bathroom before I came up here. There’s nowhere to go until the bus gets here.”
“That’s another thing, there’s no place to pee. I’m a guy, so I can go anywhere, but what about the women? They’re not going to feel comfortable doing that outside when there’s nowhere to even hide,” says Ernest. “And no one wants to let you use their restrooms.”
There is no restroom access at the locked-up former terminal. However, the chain link fencing blocking the driveway that leads to the docks where passengers once loaded up has been pulled back from the brick wall.
A makeshift restroom has been created behind the one remaining trash bin at the property’s corner. It’s only a waist-high bin, however, and privacy is limited. Also, using it is both trespassing and a misdemeanor crime.
D looks at the tracker on her cellphone. The bus, she says, just arrived in Lynchburg. The app predicts another hour’s wait.
Across the country, Greyhound has been selling off real estate, including terminals and parking lots in Denver and Los Angeles. The Denver sale, announced in December, brought the bus line’s owners $137 million.
Charlottesville’s station is also on the market. Local real estate agents and brokers contacted said there are sales leads, but nothing has been finalized. The adjoining property, the former Mount Zion Baptist Church — built in 1884 by a congregation of African Americans and for the last 17 years home to the Music Resource Center — is also on the market.
The property’s proximity to hotels and the Downtown Mall makes it prime real estate for developers, agents said.
Greyhound bought the property in 1987 for $455,000 and has seen the site’s value rise with the city’s increasing reassessments. In 2010, the city assessed the property at $606,800 for the land and $534,900 for the building, for a total of $1,141,700.
In 2019, the city assessed the property at $937,100 and building at $630,400 for a total $1,567,500. In the most recent reassessment, the total value of the property is $1.95 million, with land assessed at $1.5 million and the building at $445,200.
Sell seems to be the operative word for the Scottish corporate owner. It recently sold some subsidiaries of Greyhound, including First Student, a large provider of school bus transportation across the United States. It also sold First Transit, which supplies various transportation services to communities, from operating municipal buses to paratransit systems similar to the region’s Jaunt service.
Both of those subsidiaries were sold to a Swedish private equity firm.
At 2 p.m. on the nose, the Greyhound bus pulls up and blocks the right travel lane of southbound Ridge Street. A half-dozen riders get off, light cigarettes and take a break.
Ernest, D and Sharon load their baggage and board as a woman on crutches disembarks, retrieves her bags and drapes a jacket on the hot pavement before sitting down to wait for her ride.
She makes a call on her cell, reaches her party and turns on the speaker.
“You won’t believe it, but there’s nothing here, Mom,” she says, turning her phone camera on. “The station is closed. There’s not even a bathroom. It’s just an empty parking lot.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Mom replies in surprise as the bus pulls away, its engine drowning out all conversation.