The Silver Line: Blessing — and pain — for bus riders’ commutes in Northern Virginia

How will the Orange, Blue and Silver lines squeeze through crowded Rosslyn Station? Careful choreography. (Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post)

By 5 p.m. on a recent weekday, the north bus bay at the West Falls Church Metro station was packed with commuters waiting in line to board buses to Herndon, Reston, Tysons and Dulles International Airport.

Next week, the busy transit hub where dozens of buses come and go each day will be unusually quiet. As many as 7,000 people who get to West Falls Church by bus will now be transported to the new Silver Line stations opening over the weekend.

The launch of Metro’s new rail line means thousands of bus riders in Northern Virginia will have to adjust their commute times, adapt to new bus routes, and in some cases pay more for their trips.

“This is so confusing,” commuter Henry Lee said as he learned that his No. 555 bus from a park-and-ride lot in Reston to West Falls Church would change routes starting Saturday. “Where am I supposed to go, then?”

The first phase of the $5.6 billion Silver Line opening this weekend has four stations in Tysons Corner — McLean, Tysons Corner, Greensboro and Spring Hill — and one in Reston, Wiehle-Reston East.

The opening marks the end of years of planning for a major overhaul of the Fairfax County bus system. The Fairfax Connector is changing 28 bus routes, introducing 16 new ones and eliminating five. About 40 percent of the Connector’s service will change, affecting about 9,000 bus riders. Transit officials say they hope the additional service, expected to cost about $6.5 million annually, will lead to increases in ridership and overall transit use in the Dulles corridor.

In anticipation of the rail line opening, Metro also implemented changes to about a dozen Metrobus routes starting back in January, and Saturday the agency will tweak some of those routes to serve the new Metro stations.

“It’s a big change and will take time to adjust,” said Nick Perfili, Fairfax Connector section chief.

Bus commuters seem to be looking ahead to the change with a mix of frustration, skepticism, and to some degree, excitement.

The restructuring of bus service means shorter bus rides to Metrorail for many riders, but for others it complicates and adds cost to their commutes. Residents of Loudoun County and Herndon and Reston in Fairfax who now take buses to West Falls Church will have a quicker ride to the new Wiehle Avenue station in Reston.

But that shorter bus ride also translates into a more expensive train ride. The bus fare will remain the same, at $1.75, but the rush-hour train fare from the Wiehle Avenue station to downtown Washington will cost $5.90, up from the $4.10 fare from West Falls Church.

Commuters boarding Fairfax Connector buses at the Sunset Hills park-and-ride in Reston will no longer have that free parking option because the facility will close when the Silver Line opens. Instead, they are being encouraged to look for a different park-and-ride lot, or skip the bus ride and park at the Wiehle Avenue station, which has 2,300 spaces and costs $4.85 a day. It’s the only one of the new stations that has parking.

Eric Schuck, 32, a government analyst based in Tysons, says he is looking forward to a shorter commute. Beginning Monday, his bus from Manassas — which he rides to West Falls Church where he boards a second bus to Tysons — will take him to the Tysons Metro station, just a few blocks from his office. He hopes to eliminate a second bus ride, but he isn’t sure walking that last stretch is possible.

“There [are] not a lot of sidewalks in that area installed yet,” he said. “I have to be creative with my walking routes.”

Fairfax officials say they are taking care of those concerns with the introduction of three circulator buses that will connect the rail stations to key employment sites and shopping destinations in Tysons. And long-term plans call for more sidewalks and walkways in the area.

Meanwhile, Antonio Granados, 60, is already lamenting the Silver Line opening. He commutes by bus from Arlington to Herndon, with a connection at West Falls Church. On Monday he will take a bus to the East Falls Church Metro station, get on a Silver Line train to Wiehle Avenue, and then board a bus to Herndon.

“I’m forced to take Metro. That adds at least $4 to my commute each way,” he said. His Metrorail ride will be $4.75.

Transit officials say the changes are meant to expand bus service in the Dulles corridor and encourage more bus and transit use in a part of Northern Virginia where the car is still the preferred mode of transportation. Fairfax and Metro officials say they expect that by now most riders are aware of the coming changes, but the agencies will be out Saturday and next week to assist riders.

Their main concern this week was getting the word out about the new bus schedules and routes, and encouraging riders to plan ahead and give themselves extra time during their Monday commutes, Perfili said.

As Jose Portillo, 25, got off his bus from Herndon at West Falls Church and waited for a bus to McLean, he said he didn’t know the new rail line was opening Saturday. He also didn't know the No. 950 bus he uses daily will no longer go to West Falls Church.

“I had a routine already,” he said. By Monday, he said, he hoped to have a new commuting plan, and would get up earlier and try the new route.

Metro officials say the bus service will play an integral part in the Silver Line’s success, and expect many more residents in the Dulles corridor to connect to Metrorail by bus.

With no Metrorail parking lots at the four Tysons stations, bus service is viewed as essential to transporting riders to and from the stations, said Jim Hughes, Metro’s director of intermodal planning.

As Fairfax County officials handed out new schedules at West Falls Church this week, they answered questions from riders, many still confused and worried about the impact of the new route on their travels.

“Be prepared! The Silver Line service starts Saturday,” Perfili yelled to commuters rushing from the train platform to the bus bay. “Your bus service is changing. The Fairfax County Connector will no longer be serving West Falls Church.”

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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