For the first time, Metro is considering running express bus service from the District to Northern Virginia to carry workers across the river to thousands of unfilled jobs in the Dulles corridor and Tysons Corner.
Metro is realizing what social service agencies and employers have noted for years: Fixed rail and traditional bus routes make it difficult for city dwellers without cars to reach suburban jobs.
"It's a problem all over the country," said Jim Hughes, director of planning operations at Metro. "Development of the last 20 years has generated employment in the suburbs, and there are still pockets in the core [city] areas of people looking for jobs. We're beginning to connect the two of them."
Gladys Mack and David Catania, who represent the District on the Metro board of directors, want express bus service from Union Station to the Dulles corridor, with possible stops at Tysons Corner and other major job centers. There is no similar plan to launch express bus service to Maryland.
"For too long, we've been extraordinarily passive in the ways we meet needs of citizens," said Catania (R-At Large), also a D.C. Council member. "In the midst of a booming economy, there's no reason to have over 15,000 unemployed citizens."
The Metro board has directed transit officials to study the viability and cost of the express bus service that would serve traditional rush-hour commuters, as well as shift workers. Hughes, who expects the study to be completed by February, said the new service could be launched by July 1 if the Metro board approves.
Gregory Irish, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, cautioned that District-to-Dulles buses are only part of the solution. "It'll take more than a ride to create job opportunities for welfare recipients and low-income people, especially in the D.C. area," Irish said. Workers will have to receive training in occupational skills and, in some cases, remedial education, he said. "The answer is not just transportation, but transportation in combination with work force training."
The economic boom has created thousands of new jobs in the suburbs, dropping the unemployment rate outside the city to 2 percent and leaving employers desperate to fill an estimated 4,000 jobs in the Dulles corridor, according to United Planning Organization, a D.C.-based social service agency.
But in the District, the jobless rate sticks at 6 percent, and an estimated 15,600 unemployed residents hunt for work, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services. In some neighborhoods, such as Ward 8 in Southeast Washington, the unemployment rate is 10.7 percent.
Darrick Mitchell, 26, is among the District residents who have relied on the transit system to make the hot suburban economy work for them. He lives in Columbia Heights, just 16 miles from Tysons Corner. But when a temporary employment agency placed him in a customer service job at the Renaissance Hotel at Tysons, he endured an odyssey that required a bus ride to the U Street Metro station, a subway ride to L'Enfant Plaza, a switch to the Orange Line, another ride to West Falls Church and yet another bus ride from the Metro station to Tysons.
The trip took two hours and cost $5. And that was if all the connections worked. Late trains and missed buses added to the ordeal.
"It was quite a hassle," Mitchell said. Now he is looking for permanent, full-time work and took the bus last week to the D.C. Employment Services office in Anacostia. "Any improvement in transportation would be a plus," he said.
Metro's interest in reverse commuting comes as the number of riders taking the subway from the city to the suburbs on workday mornings has grown 40 percent in the last five years to 10,000 passenger trips, Hughes said.
The West Falls Church station on the Orange Line, the Fairfax County station closest to the District with bus links to Tysons, sees the largest numbers of reverse commuters, Hughes said. About 1,100 passengers exit at West Falls Church on weekday mornings during the rush period, he said.
Fairfax County, along with Metrobus, provides bus service from its Metro stations to points across the county. In July, the county doubled its bus service to meet growing demand, said Young Ho Chang, the county's director of transportation. "We're offering midday service, weekend service. We're trying to take care of a lot of demand," Chang said. "So far, the numbers are really positive."
Katherine K. Hanley (D), who chairs both the Fairfax Board of Supervisors and Metro board of directors, cautioned that new express bus service from the District to Dulles may duplicate existing service.
"We are running an awful lot of connector bus service right now. We doubled that service in July," she said. "I'd like to see us publicize the existence of that service. If there is the ridership to run express service to Tysons from the District, that's something we ought to look at. But Metro has tried not to duplicate rail service."
On weekday mornings, the Fairfax Connector buses carry 643 passengers from the West Falls Church Metro station to points in Reston, Herndon and Tysons Corner, Chang said.
Some Virginia employers are also trying to fill in the gap by running private vans to pick up their employees at Metro stations, but analysts say that solves only a small fraction of the problem. The state of Virginia and Metro plan eventually to extend the subway to Dulles, with service at Tysons Corner, but that project is years away.
Direct links from city to suburbs are needed now, Catania said. "We have poor service to these suburbs," he said. "You have to take a bus to a bus to rail to a bus. By the time you accumulate all the costs and time waiting for transfers, it takes hours and money."
Kevin Cubbage knows that as well as anyone. The 35-year-old laborer, a District native, said he lost a job as a foreman at a Reston construction firm because the patchwork of buses and subways couldn't guarantee his timely arrival at work each day.
"If I had transportation, I could strike a job faster and be more dependable for the job," said Cubbage, who was at the D.C. unemployment office in Anacostia three days before Christmas, looking for work. "I got a job lined up after the first of the year, tree climbing. I'm trying to find something to tide me over until then."
For people who work late hours or odd shifts, Metro is not much of a help.
Yvonne Jeziorski, general manager at the Embassy Suites hotel in Tysons, lost two workers recently because they too often missed the last train to leave West Falls Church for the city, at 11:35 p.m.
Just getting back and forth to the Metro station--a 15 minute ride by car from the hotel--is an ordeal for workers without automobiles, she said. "Sometimes we have to let our evening people out early to catch the train," Jeziorski said. "But sometimes, depending on the job they do, we can't."
Analysts say Northern Virginia, fueled by the expansion of the high-tech industry, has led the region in job creation. The high-tech expansion has helped create thousands of jobs in the service and retail industries, as well.
The two regional malls at Tysons Corner, which has the second largest concentration of retail space on the East Coast outside of Manhattan, provide about 6,000 jobs. Offices generate 110,000 jobs at Tysons and 138,000 jobs in the Dulles corridor--including Reston, Herndon, Dulles and Chantilly. And the still-expanding Dulles International Airport has generated 28,000 jobs.
Many of the jobs require few skills, said Jerry Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. "In the retail stores at Tysons, there's a great demand for clerks, for people who put stuff on shelves. There are auto dealers looking for sales staff and mechanics. The demand is so considerable, people are happy to find people with capacity to learn and will train them on the job."
Metro would not need to immediately invest in new buses to provide the service because the agency is already expecting delivery soon of 230 new Orion buses. Metro had been planning to retire some of its fleet once the new buses were in place. If the board orders new express bus service to the Dulles corridor on July 1, the retirement of buses can be postponed, Hughes said.
One of the nation's most successful reverse-commute bus systems is in suburban Chicago. Since 1986, the Pace system has been running buses from Chicago to suburban office parks, malls and other employment sites. It carries about 25,000 trips a day on more than 1,000 buses and vans, said James Jarzab, manager of the strategic planning department.
The greatest challenge Pace faced was bucking convention, Jarzab said. "Traditionally, transit throws service out and hopes someone rides it," he said. "The thinking is, 'If we put a bus there and people can make the connections, that must be good enough.' What we're trying to do is offer something that's actually attractive. I'm not saying give everyone a limousine with a wet bar. But it ought to be comfortable, clean, quick and reliable. We go to the one common site where the jobs are, and then we try to figure out where people are coming from and try to serve them."