BLACKSBURG — Mauricio Kattan watched the second and third full buses roll right by his stop along Prices Fork Road Wednesday morning, unable to pick him up.
He rolled his eyes and shrugged. This was not a good problem to have. The industrial engineering junior was going to be late for class.
Kattan’s first class on Wednesdays is at 10:10 a.m. and he’d arrived more than a half hour early to catch buses that simply drove by, too full to pick up more riders.
“They have to add more buses,” Kattan said shortly before the fourth Hethwood route bus, which finally had room, arrived at his stop.
Getting left behind at bus stops along Prices Fork Road has become commonplace this fall, students said in interviews Wednesday. The end of the day is also a tough time to catch a bus, they said. Town and university officials insist that busing challenges are normal at the beginning of every semester, but students interviewed believe it has everything to do with Tech’s overflow housing at the former Holiday Inn Express.
“It’s been rough,” said Joey Merline, a junior studying computer science who rode the same route last year. He arrived 45 minutes before class so he wouldn’t be left behind.
“I’ve seen people who’ve just given up and started walking.”
The mile-and-a-half walk from his stop to Tech’s Drillfield takes more than half an hour.
Derek Hennen, a graduate student, has been relying on the bus to get to campus since 2015.
“This semester has been noticeably worse,” Hennen said. “It’s always busier at the beginning of the semester, so I’m hoping it’ll get better.”
Blacksburg Transit officials have said they’re ramping up efforts to get students to campus more quickly and efficiently. The agency hasn’t added routes, but this summer the goal was to get as many as 14 buses an hour going through the heavily trafficked corridor between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Overall ridership during the first two weeks of the fall semester is up 5% compared with the previous fall on Blacksburg Transit, agency spokeswoman Fiona Rhodes said.
The challenges faced this year, though, are typical at the beginning of any fall semester, Rhodes said.
“This year is not going differently than years past,” she said.
Blacksburg Transit has 119 drivers operating buses and about 30 of them are full time with the rest being part timers. As students adjust to a new semester, according to Rhodes, buses are full less often and are able to accommodate the appropriate number of passengers.
Transit officials are closely monitoring the situation and haven’t noticed too much strain. In fact, buses that are completely full and unable to accept passengers are down 1% compared with the previous fall, she said.
However, she said Blacksburg Transit hopes to hear from students and adjust to their needs as the semester goes on.
“We always try to adapt our services to meet demands,” she said.
Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said the university is monitoring the busing situation, as it does every year.
He echoed Rhodes saying that students will adjust to the new routes, figuring out how to navigate the system and find the best buses. It normally takes three weeks for students to figure out their routine at the beginning of a semester, he said.
“There’s a learning curve that’s normal and natural that we’ve dealt with this year,” he said.
The reason for the influx of passengers is simple, students said.
Because Tech admitted approximately 1,000 more freshman than in previous years, about 200 students are living in HIE Student Housing, the former Holiday Inn Express on Plantation Road, and creating a strain on the public transit system, the students gathered around a bus shelter near the intersection of Prices Fork and Plantation roads said.
Blacksburg Transit has advised students to avoid the shelter, located on the southern sidewalk of Prices Fork Road, which is one of the last where students are picked up along the corridor. Instead, the agency has suggested students stay on their side of the road to the north and get picked up early in the bus route. Buses are less likely to be full when they arrive there, Rhodes said.
Students gathered at the shelter, though, aren’t following that advice, largely because they’d have to wait on the bus as it drives along almost the entirety of its route.
Maelyn Bell, a freshman at HIE Student Housing, said one of her friends ordered rides from Uber to get to campus because she couldn’t count on catching a bus.
Alexis Anderson, another freshman student there, said Uber is a common solution for people who can’t catch a bus, though “that gets expensive,” she said.
She’s had to wait for a bus for as long as an hour to get to campus. And during the weekend, the buses are also difficult to catch, sometimes leaving students stranded from dining halls where they’re required to purchase meal plans from.
Anderson said she and her peers have spent recent days emailing Tech student affairs officials about the situation, requesting a shuttle from the hotel to campus to alleviate the strain.
A shuttle is unlikely to pick students up at HIE Student Housing because of the nearby bus stop, Owczarski said.
Students, though, can be assured that the university and Blacksburg Transit are working to make things better, he said.
“We’re monitoring the situation and we will make tweaks and service changes,” he said. “We’re feeling good that students will see and feel a difference.”