Space Museum Grounds the Shuttle To Dulles Center

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006

The National Air and Space Museum is canceling its bus service to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, its companion museum near Dulles International Airport, because of scant ridership and mounting expenses.

The Udvar-Hazy Center, a mammoth facility with nearly 300 large artifacts of air and space invention and travel, opened in December 2003. Direct bus service from the Mall was one of the original features, designed to entice some of the millions of people who have made the primary museum the most visited in the world. Udvar-Hazy, a 10-story hangar with a $311 million price tag, is about 28 miles from downtown Washington. The last day for the shuttle is Monday.

"The reason is 100 percent financial. We have learned what everyone else learns in the transportation business -- if you are dependent on the fares alone, you aren't going to make it," said Gen. John R. Dailey, the director of both museums.

The NASM Express Shuttle Bus was started with a $1.5 million grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The grant was supposed to last three years, but the museum used it up by May, Daily said.

Increasing fares didn't help. Initially, a round-trip ticket was $7. It was raised to $12 and this summer went to $15. The bus made five round trips a day.

On average, Dailey said, there were about eight passengers for each trip on the 50-seat vehicle.

"We had great hopes. We advertised it. But most people came out in their own vehicle or took a courtesy van from the hotel," he said. "We think we do a great job about telling people things, and then we are amazed at what people don't know."

There were fliers about the shuttle at the information desk inside the Mall museum. But only 20 percent of the visitors stop by that desk, the museum has found. Also, 75 percent of visitors to the main museum use the Mall entrance and start looking up at the historic planes without going to the information desk.

Officials decided they couldn't underwrite the costs of the shuttle. Dailey estimated that the service would lose $40,000 to $50,000 a month.

The only other public transportation to Udvar-Hazy is a Virginia Regional Transit Authority bus that stops at the airport and Dulles Town Center. The Udvar-Hazy stop was added in July on a one-year trial basis, said Kimberly Knoll, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Regional Transportation Association, which arranged the funding for the route. Through Tuesday, 683 people had taken the bus to the museum in August, she said.

About 3 percent of the people who have been to Udvar-Hazy have taken the shuttle bus, said Dailey. Discontinuing the service will have a minuscule impact on attendance, but the number of visitors at the Virginia site is a concern for Dailey. When Udvar-Hazy opened, officials predicted visitors would number 2 million to 3 million a year.

In 2004, Udvar-Hazy had 1.6 million visitors; in 2005, it had 1.1 million. As of July 31, it had 616,681 visitors this year. The Mall museum had 3.3 million visitors in the first seven months of 2006; in 2004 it had 4.9 million and in 2005, 6.1 million.

Nevertheless, Dailey has found some consolation in the numbers. "It is the second-most-visited air and space museum in the world," he said.

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