After nearly three decades as a successful high school teacher and coach, Peg Motley launched Wheatland Express Charters & Tours in 1988. The venture proved to be a whole new ballgame.
The Pullman entrepreneur, mother of four, and grandmother of six had dabbled in other enterprises. While teaching in Spokane, she and her husband made and sold Country Style Horseradish. When they moved to Pullman, she opened Drop Your Duds, a self-serve laundromat. But the 1955 Washington State University alumna and Cottonwood, Idaho native, knew “zero” about buses.
“Initially, I was intimidated by their size,” she admits as she walks between two white-and-blue buses parked in a neat row in an old rock quarry a mile east of downtown Pullman.
Now a “certified AC [air conditioning] person,” she also knows the difference between an alternator and a carburetor. She has more than 30 full- and part-time employees and a fleet of 17 buses. Her first bus replaced a 1985 black Cadillac stretch limo used to transport clients and promote Wheatland Travel, an earlier venture she sold, and then reacquired, lasts year.
What sparked the bus business idea?
Her concern for the number of WSU students, she explains, who were being killed or injured on the highway while driving across the state. An attempt to arrange charter buses to transport students during University breaks failed. So Motley purchased her own buses.
Local banks financed the startup with loans totaling around $80,000. She also capitalized on “LINK,” a Washington banking program that provides loans at discounts to women-owned businesses. In addition, the company received a two-year, $550,000 Rural America Grant to provide bus serve where it is non-existent.
Wheatland Express runs two buses to Pasco daily during the week. Pasco is a hub for Greyhound, which takes passengers on to Portland, Seattle, and Yakima.
“The rural route is a small part of the business but fills a need,” Motley says. High ridership-an average of 8,000 boardings per year-is on the eight-mile Pullman-Moscow commuter run. Wheatland buses make the trip 11 times daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week. The route accommodates college students traveling between the two communities. Some take classes offered cooperatively at WSU and the UI. Faculty, staff, and students ride free. Both universities subsidize the service equally with “a little profit margin” for Wheatland Express, Motley says. Charters provide the biggest part of the company’s income.
During the summers, some of her buses have been used to transport firefighters to forest fires as far away as Arizona.
Motley pulls an occasional shift behind the wheel. She prefers the shorter runs to Spokane or touring WSU “Golden Grads” around the Pullman campus when they return each May for their 50-year reunion. Her oldest bus was built in 1980, the newest in 1995. With new buses costing $400,000, she opts for good-quality used. Her first purchase was “admittedly worn,” she says. “We learned a lot about buses in the process of rebuilding it.”
Wheatland Express maintains a three-person office staff, two full-time mechanics, six full-time drivers, and about 20 drivers who prefer to work part-time.
Motley is proud of Wheatland Express’s record for few mechanical breakdowns and the letters of commendation the company has received as a safety leader from state and federal agencies. One of the worst public-relations problems a bus company can have is for a bus to break down on the side of the road, she says.