Forget the Metro. Can Northern Virginia fix its bus systems?

February 18, 2022 12:03 am

Bus-only lanes in Rosslyn, Virginia. (Northern Virginia Transportation Commission)

Last fall, Metro grabbed headlines when it released potential plans for a new Georgetown stop and a Blue Line extension to National Harbor. The only thing bigger than the D.C. region’s excitement for the possible new rail connection was the price tag. At an initial cost estimate of $20 billion to $25 billion, it’s hard to imagine how Metro could pay for such a service expansion given its still pandemic-depressed ridership and a looming “financial cliff” when federal emergency support for the nation’s public transit systems runs out. 

With the future of Metrorail uncertain, a growing coalition of advocates and officials are asking: “Are buses the answer?”

“The bus has often been the forgotten stepchild in the region because discussions of Metrorail suck up all the air in the room,” said John Hillegass, manager for regional mobility and infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership. “That’s understandable with all of the challenges the Metro has had recently, but we wanted to elevate the role of the bus as this really cost efficient tool to increase connectivity, drive economic development and boost quality of life.”

Better buses, better region

Although discussions of Metrorail extensions are a perennial talking point in Northern Virginia, relatively little attention has been paid to the potentially transformative power of a better bus network. For the same $20 billion estimated cost to extend the Blue Line, the region could build out over 300 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT) — bus routes that act like a train with fewer stops, higher frequencies and more substantive stations. Two hours south, Richmond’s award-winning Pulse BRT cost just a bit over $60 million for seven miles of service (roughly the same distance from D.C.’s Navy Yard to the National Harbor). Establishing dedicated lanes to speed up standard bus service would be even cheaper, costing just $1 million a mile.

“Today we have just 10 miles of dedicated bus lanes in the region, and only three to four of them could be considered BRT,” Hillegass explained. “We know that bus riders are much more likely to have lower incomes and be people of color, so if we really want to improve equity, then we need to be investing in our bus system.”

The combination low-cost, high-impact appeal of buses culminated in a report released last month by the Metro Now coalition to refocus regional leaders’ attention on that more modest mode of public transit. Comprised of seven business groups and the Coalition for Smarter Growth — an urbanist advocacy nonprofit, Metro Now is calling for six fixes to the region’s bus systems: route redesigns, more bus lanes, the hiring of additional operators, a zero emissions fleet strategy, improved data sharing and a solution to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s impending fiscal cliff.

According to Kate Mattice, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, some of that work is already underway, albeit via the region’s customary patchwork approach. Although the overlapping routes and responsibilities can prove confusing to observers and riders alike, one thing the greater Washington area’s bus systems have in common is their universal use of SmarTrip fare cards. Increasingly that shared payment system is enabling jurisdictions to learn from one another on the fare front.

“Our bus systems have been doing some interesting things with fares for specific populations,” said Mattice. “Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax have been offering free transit for middle and high school students. Arlington just launched free bus fare for eligible students and low-income residents. Loudon County is voting on offering free public transit to folks under 18 using student IDs as bus passes. The Department of Rail and Public Transportation provided seed money to help localities explore reduced and zero fare policies, and most localities are taking advantage of that to make the bus much more accessible and rebuild their ridership.”

All eyes on Alexandria

Whereas Metrorail ridership is hovering at about one fifth of its pre-pandemic passenger numbers, Northern Virginia’s bus systems are reporting that 60-80 percent of riders have already returned. The only public transit provider in the region logging historic highs with its ridership numbers is Alexandria’s DASH bus. Richmond’s similar success in beating its pre-pandemic passenger counts points to the effectiveness of two recent DASH developments: a route redesign that boosted ridership 26 percent its first month in effect and a pledge to keep city buses zero fare through at least 2025.

Things weren’t always so rosy in Alexandria, however. “Several years ago we were starting to see reductions in transit ridership,” said Mayor Justin Wilson, an avid bus rider for over 20 years. “One of the major factors was that the basic framework of our DASH bus system was put in place in 1984, and it hadn’t really changed. We added and tweaked routes, but the 1984 route map was pretty similar to what was in place as recently as last August. That’s why we wanted to step back and see if we could serve more people versus just more geography.”

The move to focus on increasing ridership over sheer geographic coverage shifted a lot of bus capacity west towards the newer side of the city which skews denser, has more African American residents and a larger immigrant population. The changes also expanded mid-day, nighttime and weekend service. The new routes marked a stark departure from Northern Virginia’s traditional transit model: getting residents from single-family neighborhoods to Metro stations in order to commute into D.C. With ever more job centers and dense developments scattered around the region, local officials are starting to ask whether it still makes sense for all buses to terminate at the Pentagon.

Another big factor behind Alexandria’s success has been the city’s ever-increasing bus-only lanes. Its dedicated north-south BRT corridor to Arlington proved a first for the region, increasing ridership and sparing passengers headaches when Metro stops have had to close for construction. A year and a half ago the city received $87 million in funding to build out a second set of dedicated bus lanes along Duke Street. As that project gets underway, Alexandria is already angling for a third transit corridor across town. 

Mattice believes such bus improvements are becoming infectious: “The more that we do these successful BRTs with nice-looking buses, comfortable stops and good service, the more I think that focus on buses and BRT will permeate,” she said. Fairfax County’s coming Richmond Highway BRT seems to prove her point. Once that project is complete the region’s riders could enjoy a one-seat ride all the way from the Pentagon to Fort Belvoir.

Such cross-border coordination gives Wilson hope that the pandemic nadir could prove a turning point for public transit in Northern Virginia. “We get this assumption in local government that there is something magical about our local borders,” he said. “For our residents crossing into Arlington from Alexandria it doesn’t matter — they just want fast, reliable bus service to get them where they need to go.  It shouldn’t be revolutionary that I can go to my street corner and catch a bus into Arlington, but it is right now.”

With so many positive improvements already in the works, Hillegass and his Metro Now coalition just want Northern Virginia’s leaders to keep their eyes on the fastest and most cost-effective method to improve the region’s transportation: the bus.

“Buses are not sexy, but they are important for hundreds of thousands of peoples’ daily lives,” he said. “This isn’t the time to pull away from public transit. We need to be investing in a more reliable transportation system today, and the bus is a key way to do that.”

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Wyatt Gordon
Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon covers transportation, housing, and land use for the Mercury through a grant from the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The Mercury retains full editorial control. Wyatt is a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor’s in international political economy from the American University in Washington, D.C. Most recently he covered transportation as Greater Greater Washington’s Virginia correspondent. Previously he’s written for the Times of India, Nairobi News, Honolulu Civil Beat, Style Weekly and RVA Magazine. He also works as a policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network. Contact him at [email protected]