WOODBRIDGE, VA – Imagine commuting on I-95 with only two lanes available for most drivers. Milton Powell doesn’t have to imagine it; he remembers it well. As a bus operator for a quarter of a century – nearly as long as the agency he now works for has existed – he’s witnessed many changes and feels blessed to be doing the job that first captivated him as an 11-year-old.
The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) was still 13 years from being created when Powell invited his first passengers to board a COMMUTERIDE bus in 1973. Back then Powell was a part-time driver, negotiating his way along I-95 each weekday for Colonial Transit, which then operated the commuter bus service in Prince William County. The interstate at that time had one lane for High Occupancy Vehicles and two lanes for other vehicles in each direction, Powell said.
By 1991 the COMMUTERIDE service had been operated by a series of contractors, and Prince William County turned to PRTC – an agency that had been founded in 1986 to help start the Virginia Railway Express – to request that it take over the commuter bus operation.
Much has changed in the intervening years. I-95 now stretches across 10 lanes – boasting four lanes in each direction and two reversible Express Lanes – and Prince William’s population has more than doubled to about 450,000. But Powell, 63, is still climbing behind the wheel of a commuter bus – now as a full-time OmniRide operator – intent on getting his passengers safely to their destinations.
Ever since he took a bus trip to North Carolina as an 11-year-old, Powell, who lives in Dale City and was raised in Woodbridge, has been fascinated with operating a bus. He recalls being “so in awe” while watching the bus operator on that trip. “That started it all,” he said.
In the 1970s, Powell was known as a “worker-driver.” He would drive a commuter bus from Woodbridge to the Pentagon and drop off passengers there and in Crystal City before heading back to the Pentagon, where he would park the bus and work at his full-time job in one of the mail rooms. In the afternoons, he’d pick up passengers at Crystal City and the Pentagon before returning to Woodbridge.
At that time, commuter routes were only available in Dale City, Lake Ridge and Manassas, and fares were paid with cash rather than tokens or SmarTrip electronic fare cards. A conductor and assistant conductor would sell paper fares on the buses, and on Fridays they would also sell snacks and “we’d have a little party on the bus,” Powell said.
COMMUTERIDE buses were notorious for poor maintenance. The buses didn’t have air conditioning or automatic transmissions, and required a very skilled driver to operate them smoothly, Powell said
“These are Cadillacs,” he added, comparing PRTC’s current fleet to the buses of the 1970s.
Powell continued operating commuter buses until 1989, when he left PRTC to drive for an area construction business. But in 2007, he returned to the public transportation field and today is still on the road with 25 years of service behind the wheel of a commuter bus.
What keeps him coming back after so many years? It’s the personal connection of seeing the same passengers every day – some of whom he knew from his days as a Colonial Transit worker-driver.
“It’s the enjoyment of driving them around and driving them safely,” Powell said.
Powell, who has three grown daughters and four grandsons, is proud that he taught each of his daughters to drive a car. He boasts that he put them behind the wheel on I-95 as soon as they had their learner’s permits. In comparison, his training to operate a bus in the 1970s was a bit less nerve-wracking. Back then, part of the training was done at night on the then-relatively quiet roads around Route 610 in Stafford County. Why at night? Because an operator who could handle a 40-foot-long bus in the dark could certainly operate it during the day, Powell said.
As PRTC moves into its next decade of serving the public, Powell is starting to contemplate retirement. Who knows? Maybe as a retiree he’ll take another trip to North Carolina by bus, but this time the awe of a child will be replaced by the knowledge of just what it takes to fulfill a dream.