A Lift From Md. to Tysons on Metro
By Alice Reid
The new weekday service, a year-long experiment that begins Monday and is called SmartMover, will run every 15 minutes during rush hours on buses equipped with upholstered, high-backed seats. In Maryland, the buses have permission to skirt traffic jams on the Beltway by traveling on the highway's shoulders; Virginia officials rejected that idea because of safety concerns.
Passengers will ride free for the first three months. Beginning Jan. 1, they will be charged $1.10 each way.
In part, the new routes reflect an effort by Metro to try to serve growing suburban job centers in areas that are not convenient to the region's subway system, which is designed primarily to move people into and out of the downtown area. The new service also is designed to determine whether suburbanites could be attracted to bus travel, which transportation analysts say is key to relieving traffic congestion here.
"This is a new market for us," said Metro spokeswoman Leona Agouridis. "The bus has suffered an image problem [as a symbol of inner-city transit], but as the region has grown, the need for this kind of service has grown."
If the Montgomery County to Tysons Corner service on the relatively luxurious buses draws the 1,000 passengers a day that officials hope it will after a year of operation, Metro will consider adding similar Beltway express buses between Bethesda and destinations in Prince George's County and the Springfield area, transit officials said.
"I think everyone realizes it's a little experimental, and it will be an interesting experiment," said Ron Kirby, who heads the region's Transportation Planning Board. "We'll learn . . . just what it will take to get people out of their cars. But I think there's a lot of uncertainty about the level of demand."
A total of 218 bus trips will run each day on four main routes: two between Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg and Tysons Corner, with stops at Montgomery Mall and the Rock Spring business park; and two others between Bethesda and Tysons. Service will run every 15 minutes from 6:30 to 9 a.m. and from 3:30 to 7 p.m., with hourly service during the midday hours and from 7 to 10 p.m.
For more details, riders may call 202-962-2575.
On the Tysons end, three shuttle buses will meet express buses and ferry riders to the area's office and retail complexes.
"The shuttle buses will be there, and there will be no waiting," said Metro planning director Jim Hughes, adding that making that transfer as convenient as possible is a key to the service's success.
Transportation specialists agree that SmartMover's success also will depend on its reliability -- a factor difficult to predict, given the daily glut of traffic on the Beltway between the Interstate 270 spur and the Dulles Toll Road, which the express buses will use to get to Tysons.
Being able to use the Beltway's shoulders to skirt traffic jams in Maryland will help the buses keep to their schedule. Maryland officials will allow the express buses to use the shoulders only when traffic is stop-and-go, and only after a driver has received radio clearance from Maryland State Police. Once on the shoulder, SmartMover buses will be required to use flashing lights and go no faster than 30 mph.
Signs are being installed on Maryland's part of the Beltway in Montgomery County to warn other motorists that only the buses will have access to the shoulders.
Virginia authorities have turned down Metro's request to use shoulders, citing safety considerations and concerns that shoulders may not be strong enough to accommodate the weight of buses.
"We are interested to see how the Maryland program works out, and we'll keep an open mind," said Chip Nottingham, Virginia's assistant transportation secretary.
The $1.8 million cost for the first year of the service is being split by Maryland and Virginia. The program has been well received by employers in Tysons Corner and at Rock Spring business park.
Officials at Booz-Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm with 2,200 employees in Tysons, say they are promoting SmartMover to their workers.
"We have a substantial number of people who live in Maryland, because for years we were based in Bethesda," said Gary Lance, who handles administrative operations for the company. "We see these programs as a way to help our staff, help them commute, and get some traffic off the road."
Still, Lance is unsure how many workers will ride SmartMover.
"One of the bigger issues is that a lot of our staff need their cars to visit clients during the day," he said. "But many don't. We're hoping to save some people some time."
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