Prince George’s residents, officials criticize Metro’s plan for National Harbor bus line

September 20, 2013

Most days, Ralph Bonilla has to let some of his workers at the Kmart store near National Harbor leave early to catch the last bus of the night passing along Oxon Hill Road in southern Prince George’s County. Several of his employees rely solely on public transportation, so if they miss the 11 p.m. bus, they’re left scrambling for a way home.

Now Metro has proposed changing the route of the agency’s only bus line serving National Harbor. The NH1 bus would no longer stop at the Branch Avenue Metro station and travel along Oxon Hill Road to the hotel, housing and entertainment development. Instead, the bus would run across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the King Street Metro in Virginia, providing a link from the popular waterfront resort to Alexandria.

It’s a move that critics of the proposal say could adversely affect numerous employees at National Harbor.

“This is going to create a big problem,” Bonilla said Monday during one of six public hearings the transit agency held this week to discuss the proposed change. “I am asking you, on behalf of my team, that you don’t make this huge mistake.”

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, in a letter, called on Metro not only to maintain the current service but to expand it to address increasing needs in rapidly growing southern Prince George’s.

Metro officials say the Prince George’s transit system, TheBus, would provide alternative service to county residents.

TheBus currently offers service only on weekdays and makes it’s last trip from National Harbor at 6:30 p.m. But Metro officials say if the plan is approved, the regional agency will provide supplemental service on weekends, holidays and late evenings from the Southern Avenue Metro station, maintaining almost the same level of service in the area.

Riders and county leaders say they believe the change would reduce the transportation options available in an area of Prince George’s long underserved by public transit. Demand for bus service in the National Harbor area is expected to grow with the November opening of Tanger Outlets, which is expected to bring 900 jobs.

About 6,000 people work at National Harbor, a 350-acre development on the shore of the Potomac near the Capital Beltway and Interstate 295.

“Don’t take away from what we have down here in Southern Maryland,” Prince George’s council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) told Metro officials Monday. “We need more public transportation. . . . We just cannot afford to lose what we got.”

In a letter dated Aug. 28 to Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, Baker said it was critical to continue the current service level from Branch Avenue and extend the route to King Street.

“In our view, the services both current and proposed to and from National Harbor are separate and distinct markets,” he wrote. Baker went on to request that the NH1 route “should be expanded to a later hour to accommodate the influx of additional employees, shoppers, and diners that will occur starting this Thanksgiving,” when Tanger Outlets opens.

For years, residents and workers in southern Prince George’s have raised concerns about inadequate transportation in Oxon Hill, and particularly at National Harbor, where service workers have struggled with their commutes since the resort opened in 2008.

Workers say they have to leave work early to catch the last bus at 11 p.m. Others say they have to take an expensive taxi ride to get to morning shifts on the weekends, when the bus doesn’t start running until about 8 a.m. Many workers say they depend on rides from relatives or co-workers, and in a fix some take gypsy cabs or walk home.

“It is frustrating when you see employees on their jobs leaving work early so they can run and catch the very last bus of the evening,” Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s) said. “This not only affects their work performances, it also affects their salaries.”

Residents and the thousands of workers at National Harbor are “rightfully frustrated,” said Walker, who lives in Fort Washington. “We have felt for many years down here that the public transportation here is broken.”

Zeno W. St. Cyr II, president of the Riverbend Citizens Homeowners Association in Fort Washington, said the opening of Tanger Outlets will make National Harbor even more of an employment hub. He said that “it is critical to assure that there are viable transportation modalities in order to assure that people can get to work.”

The NH1 serves about 700 riders per day, making it one of the lowest-performing routes in the system, Metro officials said. The county system, TheBus, runs two bus lines in the area. Over the summer it launched Route 35S and expanded Route 35, which runs from the Southern Avenue Metro station to National Harbor.

Metrobus’s plan is part of a larger package of adjustments the transit system wants to make next year to address ridership growth, crowding and bus performance. The Metro Board Customer Service and Operations Committee is expected to review the bus service changes in November.

Metro officials said the proposal was conceived after conversations with Prince George’s County. They said that the county and developers in southern Prince George’s have long been seeking a link between National Harbor and Alexandria and that the proposed NH1 route is an attempt to address that request without increasing expenses.

Jack Requa, Metro’s bus chief, said Monday that feedback has made it clear that the service between National Harbor and Virginia should not come at the expense of already-existing service.

“We have heard some very sincere comments by the public, and all of those will be taken into consideration,” Requa said.

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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