New Silver Line, a bus plan, and bus riders stranded, confused, and late to work

July 28, 2014

There was one big problem with Monday’s weekday debut of Metro’s new Silver Line service, and it had nothing to do with train breakdowns or delays. It involved plain old bus service.

The Fairfax Connector timed a major overhaul of its bus service with the opening of the new line, redirecting buses from the Orange Line at West Falls Church to the five new Silver Line stations and creating the county’s busiest bus hub at the new Wiehle-Reston East station.

The county undertook a massive education campaign to inform riders of the changes, including blanketing Metro stations and bus stops last week with information and outreach workers to answer questions.

But come Monday morning, there were still plenty of riders who hadn’t gotten the message and they learned the hard way that their bus routes had changed. In some cases, they waited at stops for buses that never showed up.

“Nobody told me there are no more buses here,” Hamera Tariq, of Reston, said as she waited at West Falls Church for a bus to Reston. “I don’t know where I need to go.”

She wasn’t the only bewildered rider. Commuters hurrying from the West Falls Church Metro platform Monday looking for buses were mystified to find empty bus stops and small signs indicating “No service” to Herndon, Reston, Tysons or Dulles International Airport.

“No buses,” said Carlos Martinez, 44, after waiting 45 minutes Monday morning for a bus to Reston at West Falls Church. “Nada.”

Altogether, Fairfax changed 28 bus routes and added 16 new ones, a restructuring expected to cost $6.5 million annually. Metrobus also tweaked some routes in the Tysons area to serve the new Tysons Corner and McLean Metro stations.

Some commuter buses from Loudoun and Prince William counties also changed to service the Silver Line, as did the Washington Flyer with the new Silver Express bus to Dulles Airport from the Wiehle-Reston East.

Because of the magnitude of the changes, transportation officials say they expected a few “stragglers” to show up at the wrong bus stops, particularly at the Orange Line Metro stations. But they say the transition to the Silver Line was successful, with bus traffic moving smoothly at the new stations and ridership remaining steady.

“Riders develop these commuting patterns . . . and some of them like their routine, so this is a big change,” said Fairfax Connector section chief Nick Perfili, noting that about 40 percent of the Connector’s service changed, making this the county’s biggest service change in two decades. “That’s big for us. It’s big for our passengers.”

Success, however, is relative, to riders.

Metro’s Silver Line rumbled to life Saturday as five new stations opened in northern Virginia. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

At the Tysons Metro station, volunteers from Fairfax County’s transportation department had stepped away from their regular jobs like accounting and budget work to help direct travelers at the bus stops. Around them, instead of commuters’ usual head-down, hurried pace, people were walking slowly, looking around, pausing at signs. Clusters of people, many speaking rapid Spanish, were trying to figure out the new station.

“Oh, this is a mess!” Francisca Nolasco, a bus driver, said late Monday afternoon, dropping onto a bench with her back slumped. She was volunteering to help people figure out the new routes, but she was confused herself.

People were upset about delays, she said, and about having to cross the street to get the next bus, rather than transferring at the same bus stop. “I don’t know why they did it that way. Everyone is confused. As soon as they see me, they come ask,” she said, seeing her official yellow vest and friendly smile and hearing her Spanish accent.

She kept watching people miss their buses; their silver tops were visible from the other stop, but across several lanes of traffic, too far away to run and catch. “They are not happy about it.”

Raul Manzana, 59, was trying to get home to Fairfax City from his job at Freddie Mac. Usually he takes the bus and they come every 15 minutes, he said. But he had been waiting 20 minutes and wasn’t sure where to go. “The service before was perfect,” he said. “If we miss the 4:25, we get the 4:34. Now I don’t know how to do it.”

Three circulator bus routes serving the Tysons area debuted Monday, picking up a sizeable number of commuters at the new Silver Line stations to connect riders to shopping and employment centers.

As the Monday morning and evening rush hours got underway, the buses were filled nearly to capacity as they dropped off passengers at the terminal of the Silver Line’s westernmost station, Wiehle-Reston East. Many commuters glanced around the bus terminal before making their way up the escalators to the trains.

But many train riders exiting the station platform to look for buses were confused. A Metro sign at the faregate exit indicated buses are at the station’s south entrance. But as commuters arrived on the south side, they learned that some bus routes stopped at the north side of the terminal.

“I just need to find my bus,” Stephanie Brown, of Greenbelt, told someone in a fluorescent yellow vest helping confused riders at the southside entrance. The No. 950 is on the other side, she was told, and so she began her way back up the stairs and onto the bridge that crosses the Dulles Toll Road to get to the other bus terminal.

Perfili said Metro is aware of the confusion and is working to fix the signage.

The Wiehle Avenue station is served by more than two dozen bus routes, including the Silver Express to Dulles Airport. The popular Fairfax Connector No. 950 bus, which travels via Reston Town Center, saw a slight drop in ridership as many of the regulars from the Herndon-Monroe park and ride switched to the Wiehle parking garage.

The flow of buses in and out of Wiehle moved rapidly with only a few delays during Monday’s rush hours. Transit officials at Wiehle informed private shuttle bus drivers that only authorized buses were allowed at the Metro bus bays. The additional private buses could create bottlenecks for the commuter buses, they said.

Some buses also were held at the intersection of Reston Station Boulevard and Wiehle Avenue, where drivers going into the Wiehle parking garage stopped for directions into the new facility.

Keeping bus traffic moving will be key to the success of the Silver Line, transportation officials say. The revamped service aims to make transit more accessible and attractive to residents in the Dulles corridor.

Still, for some commuters, the transition to the Silver Line was received with mixed feelings.

Antonio Granados, who used to take a bus from his Arlington home to West Falls Church, then transfer to a bus that took him to his job in Herndon, planned his Monday commute to avoid the $4.85 rush-hour fare on the Silver Line. He took four buses and spent nearly two hours to get to work.

“Metro is too expensive. I can’t spend another $10 on transportation,” said Granados, 60, as he waited at the Wiehle-Reston East station for his final bus to Herndon. “I need to find the best and cheapest route to get to work.”

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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