Circulator Bus Service Heading Toward the Mall

Driver Eric Blalock of Lanham has been with the D.C. Circulator since it rolled out in July. About 75 percent of bus trips are on the east-west line.
Driver Eric Blalock of Lanham has been with the D.C. Circulator since it rolled out in July. About 75 percent of bus trips are on the east-west line. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

The D.C. Circulator, a public bus system that has been providing inexpensive, frequent service in downtown Washington since July, will start a new route around the Mall this week, just in time for the spring tourist season.

The Circulator buses will operate a continuous loop on the streets bordering the Mall, stopping at each of the Smithsonian museums as well as the two National Gallery buildings. Like the two current Circulator routes -- one runs east-west and the other north-south -- the new loop's buses will run every five to 10 minutes and cost $1 a ride, making the fare the cheapest public transportation available downtown. Metrobus is $1.25; Metrorail is $1.35.

The new route will officially begin Tuesday, just days before the March 25 start of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which District officials predict will draw about 1 million people to the city. The Circulator plans to begin providing public service on the new route today as a test.

"This is a tremendous gift to all Washington visitors, not just those to the Smithsonian and National Gallery," said Katherine Neill Ridgley, the Smithsonian Institution's director of visitor information. It's a long walk between buildings, she said, and even farther to reach the National World War II Memorial on the Mall's west side. Hot summers and cold winters make the trek miserable, especially for the elderly and families with young children. The Smithsonian Station is the only Metrorail stop on the Mall.

"You should see the look on their faces when they come out of the Smithsonian [station] and you tell them how far they have to go to reach Air and Space, or the World War II Memorial," she said. "Their faces just fall."

The Smithsonian and the National Gallery will have Circulator brochures at their information desks and will be adding the new bus service information to their Web sites and other visitor information material.

The bus service will not only make it easier for visitors to get around, but it also will benefit the large numbers of federal workers downtown and local residents who have long sought easier access to the Mall area, said Joe Sternlieb, a board member of D.C. Surface Transit Inc., the consortium that handles marketing and planning for the Circulator.

The District launched the Circulator in July with two routes: an east-west line between Union Station and Georgetown via the Washington Convention Center and K Street, and a north-south segment between the Convention Center and the waterfront via Chinatown and the Mall. The red-and-black buses were designed for quick boarding and unloading, with service running so often that schedules were not needed.

A third line was always on the drawing board, said Michelle Pourciau, acting director of the District's Department of Transportation. From the Mall, riders will be able to connect to the other Circulator routes and travel to other parts of the city, she said. Transfers between Circulator buses are free for up to two hours.

The District, federal government and private sector are providing the $6 million in operating subsidies. The National Capital Planning Commission worked with the D.C. government, two business groups and the Convention Center to create the Circulator.

Ridership on the original routes has grown, but not as fast as planners expected. The east-west route, for example, has been running into bottlenecks around the Convention Center, and the north-south route has too much service, Sternlieb said. About 75 percent of all trips are on the east-west line, he said.

As a result, Circulator officials are modifying those routes to eliminate the bottleneck on the crosstown route and extend the north-south route at both ends, two blocks north to O Street NW and farther southwest to the Ninth Street SW fish market, Sternlieb said.

Last month, the average number of weekday trips on the east-west route was 3,892, a 35 percent increase from September 2005, when that figure was 2,891, he said. The average number of weekday trips for the north-south route last month was 1,345, compared with 958 in September. Riders took a total of 122,152 trips in February, compared with 100,681 in September.

The expanded bus service is not welcome news to Tom Mack, owner and board chairman of Tourmobile Sightseeing Inc., which has held exclusive rights to provide the sightseeing transportation on the Mall under agreements with the National Park Service dating to 1969. The average adult fare is $20 for the day.

The new route, he said, has the potential to damage -- and possibly destroy -- his business. Last year, Tourmobile served more than 1 million people at all of its sites, including Arlington National Cemetery and the major memorials.

"I believe this is an intentional infringement upon my contract," he said.

"We certainly wouldn't agree with that statement," said Alexa Viets, a National Park Service transportation planner for the Mall. "We view this as an extension of the existing public transportation network. We believe it complements the interpretative visitor transit service provided by the Tourmobile national concession."

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