At National Harbor, commuting is a daily trial for service workers

June 16, 2013

After 16 hours on his feet, cleaning dishes at one National Harbor restaurant and cooking at another, Carlos Congona wishes only for a quick ride to his home in Alexandria.

Most nights, after his second shift ends at 11 p.m., he finds a co-worker to take him to a Metro station. If he is lucky, he is home by 1 a.m.

By car, he’d be home in less than 20 minutes. Instead, on the worst nights, his commute can take up to three hours.

“It is tiring,” Congona said on a recent night as he hurried to meet his ride to the Southern Avenue Metro station. “Every day, I wish there was a bus that will make this commute easier.”

For many of the 6,000 people who work at National Harbor, commuting to and from the complex in southern Prince George’s County is a daily trial. Hundreds of them work nights at National Harbor’s six hotels and 30 restaurants, and they are among those most inconvenienced by the limited public transit.

No Metro station is within walking distance. A Metrobus line, the NH-1, serves the development — but it stops running about 11 p.m. The county’s small bus system runs a few trips to the complex, but only on weekdays. No bus connects to nearby Alexandria, home to many of the workers.

With the opening of Tanger Outlets this fall at National Harbor and the possible arrival of a casino in 2016, the need for public transit is expected to grow.

Officials say additional service is being considered, but for now most nights are a scramble from about 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. as hotel and restaurant workers emerge. Some gather at the bus stop on Waterfront Street to wait — not for a bus but for a ride home. Others sit outside the closed restaurants and stores, calling friends and relatives to come get them.

“If you missed the 10:50 [p.m.] bus, you have to have a ride or money for a taxicab,” said Lisa Steel, 29, a cook at Bond 45, a popular steakhouse.

“And the cab fare costs an arm and a leg,” she said while waiting for a ride outside the restaurant at 11:05 p.m. on a recent Tuesday.

Some workers turn to walking, taxis or even gypsy cabs after long hours serving conventioneers, tourists and local patrons— 9 million of them in 2012.

“We don’t work 9 to 5. We work when guests are in hotels, when they are in restaurants, when they are having a drink or a late-night snack,” said John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, which represents about 1,000 workers, many of them at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.

“We work at all hours a day, seven days a week,” Boardman said. “That has to be recognized if this site will continue to be the economic success that it has been thus far.”

Prince George’s County and transportation officials say they know about the need for transportation at National Harbor. In employee surveys, Local 25 found that about two-thirds of the workers at the Gaylord National depend on public transit or a ride to work, Boardman said.

“Given the importance of National Harbor to the region and Prince George’s in particular, transportation options are critical,” said Artis Hampshire-Cowan, the county’s representative on Metro’s board.

Metro is in early discussions about adding bus lines that could connect National Harbor to areas in Prince George’s and to Alexandria and the District, Hampshire-Cowan said. Increasing service, however, is constrained by funding, officials said.

“It is a money issue,” said Aubrey Thagard, a top economic development official in Prince George’s. “It really does come down to being able to pay for the service.”

Thagard said the county’s transit system, The Bus, is making some changes this summer that will improve transit at National Harbor, at a cost of nearly $3 million.

Access to public transportation has been an issue at National Harbor since it opened in 2008.

The 350-acre development is on the shore of the Potomac, near the Capital Beltway and Interstate 295. The closest Metro station is King Street-Old Town in Alexandria, five miles away across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The nearest Prince George’s station is Southern Avenue.

Not only does the one Metrobus line stop service before 11 p.m., but on weekends it doesn’t start running until 8 a.m., well after many employees are due at work.

Louis Marshall, a cook at Gaylord National, pays a $15 taxi fare every Saturday to get to work at 7 a.m. His home is three miles away in Oxon Hill.

The ride home costs less money but takes much more time. “A seven-minute drive turns into an hour-and-a-half commute,” said Marshall, 58.

He takes the NH-1 to Branch Avenue, boards a Green Line train to Southern Avenue, and catches a D-12 bus that drops him off near home.

“This is an inconvenience for the employees that keep this place running,” Marshall said.

Abul Hassan, a Prince George’s transit administrator, said National Harbor’s round-the-clock operations mean the demand for public transit is spread across day and night, and that is more expensive.

“We have empty seats on empty buses,” he said. “That is costing the citizens that pay the taxes. . . . The driver gets paid, there’s maintenance costs, and there’s fuel costs. It isn’t cheap.”

Workers complain that the buses are infrequent and the options too few.

“Most people don’t own cars, don’t drive,” Boardman said. “The bus is really the only option they have, and the frequency that that bus runs determines not only whether they get to work on time but what kind of life they have outside.”

To Candace Baskin, it also determines whether she can pick up her 5-year-old daughter on time from day care.

A cashier at the Gaylord’s employee cafeteria, Baskin, 25, on most days has to check out 20 minutes early to make the 4:50 bus that takes her to the Southern Avenue Metro station. She risks a reprimand, she said, but leaving at 5 p.m. would add another hour to her commute.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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