Story by Mercia Hobson
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
The Coalition For Smarter Growth and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) hosted a webinar on regional bus and transit services called What's up with the bus in Northern Virginia?
“We're going to try to feature the service improvements that have already been happening in our region, what the results were,” said moderator Stewart Schwartz, Coalition For Smarter Growth's executive director. Speakers discussed lessons learned, what they would continue to do, and what the agencies could do to improve service.
Coalition For Smarter Growth has advocated for walkable, bike-friendly, inclusive, transit-oriented DC communities for 25 years. In 2018, the Washinton Area Bus Transportation Project (BTP) found that bus service must be frequent and reliable to attract more riders. WMATA riders wanted free transfers. Buses should be affordable; bus tracking apps would allow payment and real-time tracking.
With the Silver Line, the Fairfax Connector made sure transit-reliant people with few transportation options were served according to Speaker Michael Felschow, planning section chief, transit services division, Fairfax Connector
Felschow discussed the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation's Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP) and Silver Line Phase 2 bus service. He focused on plans and the Connector’s fare reduction efforts.
Their onboard survey found only 30 percent of pre-pandemic riders wanted to use Metrorail. Felschow said the rest wanted to get in and around Reston-Herndon.
Realigning routes, increasing frequency, and adding connections could help the Connector reinvest in the network. “We didn’t leave out Metrorail,” Felschow said. The Connector linked each route to one or two Metrorail stations. They can get there faster than meandering through the community and then on the toll road to Wiehle Metro Station.
Public input improved the plan. New routes prioritized frequency and service span. Responders requested midday, weekend, early, and late service. Schools, hospitals, and major employers needed better connectivity. “They wanted all this information done in a user-friendly fashion,” said Felschow. The routes opened on Nov. 16, a day after the Silver Line opened.
The Connector’s new Dulles corridor routes, 901 Chantilly and 954 Centreville, provide links to Loudoun Community College and Herndon to Sterling. The Fairfax Connector improved middle and high school access. “That's important because about 7 percent of our ridership is, in fact, middle school and high schoolers,” Felschow said.
Many 30-minute routes became 20-minute routes. Midday and all-day services sped travel. Ridership rose by 20 percent.
The Fairfax County Department of Transportation received $4.5 million in TRIP program funding over three years. Low-income households can get 50 percent off Fairfax Connector fares starting February 2023.
What insights can the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission share about the Bus Rapid Transit study? And what about Richmond Highway, The One! and Envision Rt. 7, in Fairfax County?
“You can consider it (the study) a toolbox for features. You don't have to have all these features. But the more you have together, the more efficient the service will be,” said Xavier Harmony, senior program manager for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
Harmony recommends toolbox items like larger buses, off-board fare payments, and branding. The One! is set to open in 2030. "It will run from Huntington Metrorail Station to Fort Belvoir ... It is a bit of a smaller corridor than what NVTC is planning for Envision Rt. 7," Harmony said.
“[The Better Bus Initiative and network redesign] is an exciting opportunity for us at Metro because we haven't looked at our network holistically since it was developed. We're connecting to where people need to go when they want to go, and we're building a network that promotes equity,” said Speaker Melissa Kim, deputy project manager for Metro’s bus network redesign project.
Metro completed the first phase of the Better Bus Initiative in 2022 and is about one-third through it. “We're aiming to have finalized networks by the end of this calendar year, and that means we're going to be going out to the public again in April and May with actual networks,” Kim said.
Metro held 18 pop-ups and ten bus stop chats in the project's first phase.
Metro spoke to over 10,000 people. It heard from public officials in listening sessions and visited bus operators.”“Because they know the service really well,” Kim said. Metro held more workshops with its jurisdictional partners as it developed network options to ensure bus design alignment.
Forty-five percent said Metro service was really good or excellent. “We don't need to throw everything out,” Kim said. WMATA wanted to be thoughtful about proposing significant changes and noting opportunities for improvement.
Reliability, shorter wait times and on-time arrivals were high priority. That matched what WMATA heard in the bus transformation project. According to Kim, outreach helped WMATA develop its vision for a great bus network. “Metro heard that the bus needed to go where and when people were traveling — the regional connectivity piece,” Kim said.
Frequent, reliable service is essential. The bus must give historically disenfranchised communities and residents more opportunities. “It's got to do these basic things really well first. Our goal is to develop the visionary network that the region needs,” Kim said.
“Building up accessibility not just to transit but to useful transit,” said Speaker Martin Barna, director of planning and marketing for Driving Alexandria Safely Home (DASH), the public bus system for the City of Alexandria, operated by the Alexandria Transit Company.
Alexandria's hop-on-and-ride, fare-free DASH bus service targets ridership. Barna suggested placing more useful services where more people could use them to increase ridership. In 2021, DASH launched daily 15-minute routes.
Next, DASH provided frequent service in densely populated areas, high-density corridors, and major activity centers near metro rail stations.
"Among all residents, 73 percent now have access to that level of service," Barna said.
Among low-income Alexandrians, 81 percent can walk to frequent all-day bus service. “They are now able to access via transit 20 percent more jobs than the typical residents,” Barna said, making 25,000 more jobs available. DASH improved accessibility and transit affordability.
Free fares were a major commitment from City Council wanting to help pandemic-recovering households, particularly low-income households. To offset lost revenues, council increased DASH subsidies by $1.5 million that first year.
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP) awarded DASH $7 million over four years. It funds transit agencies to implement zero-and subsidized-fare pilot programs to improve urbanized area connectivity and statewide ridership. “We are fare-free for a four-year period," said Barna.
Dash pioneered fleet electrification, becoming Virginia's first electric bus agency. By 2037, DASH hopes to have 101 electric buses.
Barna noted that the Blue and Yellow lines’ infill station, Potomac Yard Metro, is anticipated to open in May 2023, more than a year later than scheduled.
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