Northern Virginia legislators, troubled by the rising cost of Metro subsidies, are considering ways to dismantle the $34.46 million Metrobus operation in the Virginia suburbs and hand at least some of its routes over to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
That proposal -- to be discussed today during the annual meeting of regional transportation officials at Airlie House near Warrenton -- would allow Virginia to escape Metro's escalating labor costs, while still providing riders with a unified, regional system that would get them from one suburban jurisdiction to another.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, created in 1964 as a regional transportation planning group, lacks the authority to own and operate buses of its own. As a first step, state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria) plans to introduce in the Virginia General Assembly next month an amendment to the commission's charter that would allow the agency to study the option of getting into the bus business.
"Many of us have come to the conclusion that Northern Virginia can operate a regional bus system which will provide better services to our residents at less cost than Metro," said Mitchell. He said that commission could conceivably be expanded to include Prince William, Loudoun and Fauquier counties -- areas that are now outside the Metro system.
Mitchell and other Northern Virginia officials have complained that Metro's high labor costs have put an unfair burden on local governments that subsidize the system's bus routes. Two years ago, the Virginia legislature voted to make changes in the Metro compact that would have helped lower labor costs but neither Maryland nor the District of Columbia -- the other two partners in the Metro system -- have concurred with the changes.
Three Northern Virginia jurisdictions have taken steps to run bus systems of their own. Both Fairfax County and Alexandria are proceeding with plans to offer limited bus services within their jurisdictions and Fairfax City already has a bus service in operation.
The move to locally operated transit systems has some Northern Virginia officials worried that the region could wind up with a patchwork of bus services that would confuse riders and burden local government with duplicative costs. That concern is another impetus for consideration of an NVTC system, said some legislators.
"If we are going to have in Northern Virginia five jurisdictions offering bus services of their own, it might make sense to coordinate them and have the NVTC provide a system," said state Sen. Adelard Brault (D-Fairfax), chairman of the Northern Virginia legislative caucus. "It certainly needs to be examined."
David Erion, NVTC executive director, said yesterday that the 18-member commission, which includes representatives of Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City and the counties of Arlington and Fairfax, has yet to consider the idea of expanding its role. "From our point of view, the first question is whether we should operate a bus system at all," Erion said. "If we decide we should, then we would go to the General Assembly as soon as possible."
The concept of another regional transportation system has already run into opposition from one powerful quarter, John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
"I am unalterably opposed to this idea," said Herrity, "We have to hire so many people just to watch Metro; I don't want to have to hire more people to watch the NVTC. We have gotten ripped off enough."
Fairfax County, which this year is paying $20.5 million in subsidies for Metro buses, is now considering a consultant's recommendation that it provide feeder bus services to the still-unopened Huntingdon Metro subway stop.
A spokesman for Metro said it would not comment on any regional plan to replace Metrobuses until a specific proposal has been drafted. Metro has not objected to the plans by local government to replace Metro bus operations, said Metro spokesman Al Long.