D.C. to discuss future of Circulator bus service

Managers of the D.C. Circulator bus system will talk about potential new routes, including the one planned for the National Mall, and a possible fare increase at a forum Tuesday.

D.C. Circulator bus
D.C. Circulator bus at Union Station. (Robert A. Reeder/The Washington Post)

Since the service began in 2005 with two routes, it has undergone expansions, and contractions, and more expansions. But in general it has been a big hit, to the point where neighborhoods see a Circulator line as contributing to economic development and community identity. The Circulator system operates five routes today, and is planning to add the Mall route in 2015.

The National Park Service and the D.C. government are working out the details on that. The Circulator used to have a seasonal Mall route, but abandoned it in 2011 because low ridership didn’t justify the expense. The new proposal could involve a subsidy drawn from parking meter revenue. The park service is planning to install more meters around the Mall later this year.

Topics for discussion at the forum include the location of stops for the Mall route. Possibilities for further expanding the system also will be discussed, as will the question of whether it should maintain its schedule of service every 10 minutes on all routes or vary that to meet different demands on different routes.

The fare on all Circulator routes has been $1 since service began. That’s not only simple, it also undercuts the cost of a ride on Metrobus, where the regular fare is $1.60 with a SmarTrip card and $1.80 with cash. Discussions about raising the fare, possibly to $2 for cash customers and $1.50 for SmarTrip users, have been underway for several years. The Metro board is scheduled to consider increases in bus and rail fares at its March meeting.

One proposal would boost the cash fare for Metrobus to $2. But that plan is likely to face opposition from the D.C. representatives on the Metro board, one of whom is D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, a candidate for mayor. Raising the Circulator fare in this environment would be a strange choice politically, unless it could be tied to specific improvements in service.

It would also be an odd choice as a business strategy. According to charts on the District’s Web site, the Circulator system’s best month for ridership was July 2011, when it carried 546,130 passengers. The peak month in 2013 was May, when the system carried 510,886 riders, according to the District’s charts.

The District is in the midst of updating its long-range Circulator Development Plan (pdf), another topic for the forum, set for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the North Hall of Eastern Market, 225 Seventh St. SE. That’s just north of the Eastern Market Metro station and near a Pennsylvania Avenue SE stop on the Circulator’s Union Station-Navy Yard route.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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