A five-mile stretch in Arlington County and Alexandria could soon be a bus rider’s dream come true: Forget the long waits at the bus stop and the time wasted in traffic.
Next year, Metro officials plan to launch a bus service connecting the Braddock Road and Crystal City Metrorail stations. And they are not talking about ordinary service. These buses would travel much of the route traffic-free in what is to become the region’s first buses-only lanes.
The buses would run frequently, and riders would pay before they board. The service is expected to boost public transit along the Route 1 corridor and provide an easy transportation link between Arlington’s well-established Crystal City and the booming Potomac Yard area in Alexandria’s northeast.
“We see this as the poster child for what transit service should be,” said Jack Requa, Metro’s bus chief. “This will be the first time that the buses will own the street and be able to move freely without interruptions from cars and taxis” and other vehicles.
The Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway, currently under construction and scheduled to debut in spring 2014, would be a test of the type of so-called bus rapid transit that several jurisdictions in the area envision as a way to speed up public transit without the huge costs of building rail lines.
Montgomery County has touted an ambitious plan to build a 160-mile system of express bus lanes. The proposal, however, is stalled in the planning stages, with a recent study suggesting the plan is not practical.
In the District, Metro and the D.C. Department of Transportation are exploring bus-only lanes along H and I Streets NW, one of downtown’s busiest bus corridors. And Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recently announced a sustainability plan that sets a goal of increasing the use of public transit to 50 percent of all commuter trips, which would reduce traffic congestion.
Bus rapid transit systems are generally not popular when they take a lane away from cars, but some transportation officials see them as part of a comprehensive transit network in the area. In the mix are the possibilities of buses traveling on shoulders and the construction of toll lanes where buses can travel faster, as is the case in the new Interstate 495 HOT lanes.
“These ideas for bus priority and bus rapid transit give us a way of improving transit service incrementally and in a relatively short period of time,” said Ron Kirby, director of the Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government. “And it is less costly than building rail.”
In Alexandria, planners are also talking about building a Metrorail station at Potomac Yard, along theYellow and Blue lines. But that more-costly project is viewed as a longer-term plan. Alexandria and Arlington also have plans for a streetcar system that would eventually run in the transitway.
Metro, which runs the nation’s sixth-busiest bus system, with more than 1,500 buses, sees the creation of a system with dedicated bus lanes as a potential money-saver. For years the agency — and its customers — have grumbled about its buses being stuck in traffic, frustrating riders. Because of the delays, Metro officials say, the agency has to run more buses.
With bus-only lanes, the agency could carry more people faster and drive up bus ridership, which could reduce the number of cars and cut congestion, officials say.
“Going forward, Metro is looking for ways for providing more expedited services, and we’d love to work with all the jurisdictions in producing these kind of dedicated streets,” Requa said. “People want to get from point A to point B, and we would like to get them there faster than we do today.”
The pre-boarding payment system planned for the transitway would be new to the region. Modeled on similar systems in other cities, the system would make boarding far quicker. Riders would be able to pay at bus station ticket vending machines that issue a time-stamped ticket. Then they would enter the bus through either door, and tickets would be checked only at random by roaming Metro personnel, not the driver.
Buses would stop at stations that would have platforms to allow level boarding and would be equipped with shelters and displays showing bus arrival information.
Metro sees the Alexandria-Arlington project as an opportunity to build support for bus-only lanes . In that spirit, the agency this week is seeking public input on two branding concepts — Metroway and Metrobeat — for buses that will run on dedicated bus lanes.
The brand, design and color Metro chooses will be fitted in the buses operating in the Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway and any future rapid transit corridors.
Funded with local, state and federal money, the Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway has been in the planning for more than a decade. It is a response to the commercial and residential growth around the former CSXT Potomac rail yard. Alexandria’s portion is estimated to cost $20 million and Arlington’s $17.5 million.
When service starts in spring of 2014, buses will travel most of the route in dedicated lanes, but a portion will be exclusively for buses only during the morning and evening peak travel periods. Another stretch will be with regular traffic.
Arlington and Alexandria officials say they expect the service will give locals more choices in public transit and also meet rising demand for service.
In Alexandria, the bus service will address the growing development at Potomac Yard, a 295-acre former railroad yard that is being converted into a mix-used development.
In Arlington, some workers at Crystal City said they hoped the new service would mean shorter waits and rides to work.
“I know the people who drive may not like bus lanes, but let’s be fair to those who depend on the bus,” said Elizabeth Bonilla, 21, a cashier who takes Metrobus from her home in Alexandria to her jobs in Crystal City and Pentagon City. “We also need to get to work on time.”
Some riders said they hope the bus priority corridors can eventually be systemwide.
“Build them all across the region so instead of seating in traffic, we can all get where we need to get,” said Dazzmon Sledge, 31, of Oxon Hill. Sledge takes Metrobus to Crystal City and then to night school in the District.
“They have dedicated bike lanes,” Sledge said. “Why not have dedicated bus lanes?”