Public Transit Feels the Pinch of Gas Prices
County Is Planning For More Buses, More Parking Spots

By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Loudoun officials are working on a long-term plan to enhance public transit services in the county, a project that has taken on new importance as rising gas costs have caused a spike in bus ridership.

The study was requested by the previous Board of Supervisors, in part to determine what changes the county needs to make to ensure that its bus services mesh with the extension of Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun in the coming years.

But officials said the year-long effort, which they hope to complete in November, is proving to be especially timely because increased demand has put a strain on the county's public transportation network in recent months.

Ridership on county-owned commuter buses was 23 percent higher from January through April than during the same four-month period in 2007, according to the Loudoun County Office of Transit and Commuter Services. The agency operates 90 bus routes that take commuters from Loudoun to the District, Rosslyn, the Pentagon and the West Falls Church Metro station.

"The system is constantly growing because of the growth of the county, but rising fuel costs have created a spike above and beyond the track of growth," said Nancy Gourley, the agency's division chief.

More than 72,000 people rode county buses in April, making it the busiest month in the system's history.

To keep up with demand, the county added two buses -- at a cost of $485,000 each -- to its 35-bus fleet this month, and transit officials expect to get state funding in July to purchase three buses, Gourley said. Those buses will join the fleet by March. She said the county also is considering leasing additional buses.

"Right now, we're looking at anything we can do to increase capacity," Gourley said.

The increased bus ridership has led to crowding at the county's park-and-ride lots.

As of last week, about 420 cars a day were squeezing into a gravel lot on Catoctin Circle in Leesburg that was built to accommodate 365 cars, said Scott Gross, transit operations manager for the county. The 750-space lot that serves the Dulles North Transit Center at Route 606 and Moran Road in Ashburn also is running out of room, and officials are considering building an overflow lot by the end of the year.

Private developers are planning to build a 100-space park-and-ride lot off Creighton Road in Brambleton and a 200-space lot on Route 50 in Arcola Center, Gross said.

Long-term recommendations for park-and-ride lots will be part of the comprehensive transit plan, which is intended to guide decisions about services and infrastructure over the next 20 years.

The plan is being developed by a consultant and an advisory committee to the Board of Supervisors. They have gathered comments from residents at several public meetings and hope to get additional public comment on a draft plan between August and October. The final plan then would be presented to the supervisors in November, although that schedule could change.

In addition to the recent jump in bus ridership, more people are choosing to carpool or vanpool to work, which is contributing to the crowding of the park-and-ride lots, county officials said. They did not have figures available on ride-sharing in Loudoun. But on the regional Commuter Connections bulletin board on the Web, ride-sharing postings from Fairfax County and Loudoun were up 87.5 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period last year.

Others are finding more creative ways to cut back on fuel costs.

Jim Bonner, 50, of Lovettsville said he still drives to McLean for his job at an aerospace company because his hours fluctuate. But he said that he and his wife have decided to reduce mileage in other ways.

"On the weekends, instead of going out to do shopping, I end up doing that on my way home during the week," Bonner said. "Between my wife and I, we save 75 miles a week."

Gross said that those who try public transportation often find it more convenient than driving, and many don't go back to driving.

"Once people get on the bus, they realize it's a good alternative and a lot of them don't leave when gas prices drop again," Gross said.

Staff writer Jonathan Mummolo contributed to this report.

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