The D.C. Department of Transportation’s draft plan for the Circulator bus system’s next decade includes proposals to add and subtract routes and increase fares.

One route, the National Mall loop, has been canceled for this year. Another proposed for suspension, the north-south route linking the Convention Center with the Southwest Waterfront, will be eliminated only over the impassioned protests of people who live in the Southwest neighborhoods that it serves. The fare increase would double the rate for those paying cash, so they would pay $2, while those using SmarTrip cards would be charged $1.50.

The transportation department has scheduled a public meeting on all the proposed changes for 6 p.m. Thursday in the Ohio Room at the Capital Hilton, 1001 16th St. NW, near L and 16th streets.

The Circulator bus was one of the first things I wrote about when I became Dr. Gridlock in 2006. The D.C. transit system was in its infancy and it was unclear whether the thing would catch on. At another transportation department meeting two weeks ago to discuss the state of the Circulator, scores of people made it very clear that it has indeed caught on. Many attended the meeting because they feared that the District would eliminate the Convention Center-Waterfront route, which links their community with downtown. (It also provides a convenient connection to the Arena Stage on the Waterfront.)

The public, now invested in a bus service that is the region’s fourth largest by ridership, should take a careful look at all these proposals. Additions and subtractions could mess with success, just as easily as they could enhance it. See a pdf version of the DDOT draft final report .

Fare proposal

Like every transit system in the region, the Circulator operates through the kindness of taxpayers. Fare box revenue covers a fraction of the cost. The report proposes raising the amount of expenses recovered through fares to 25 percent. The Circulator has never raised its $1 fare, while Metrobus has. The Metrobus fare is now $1.50 with SmarTrip and $1.70 cash.

Many riders take the Circulator because it’s user-friendly, with its distinctive red, black and gray buses and easy-to-understand routes and schedules. But many also are aware that they’re getting a bargain compared to the Metrobus fare. (A quarter of the Circulator’s passengers make $20,000 or less, according to the report.)

On the one hand, the $2 cash fare would keep payments simple, and speed boardings. On the other hand, the Circulator wants to have about 20 people boarding each bus per hour. Would raising the fare push some riders over to Metrobus or other means of transportation, hurting overall revenue?

Cutting routes

The Smithsonian-National Gallery route seemed like such a natural. One of the original goals of the Circulator service was to help visitors get around easily to the District’s attractions. But it bombed. The report says average ridership on this seasonal route was 10 passengers an hour. The route, operating only on weekends during tourist season, may not have been visible enough. There are few places along museum row where people can look out the windows and notice that well-branded bus going by. The report suggests that the service could be brought back some day if the National Park Service would grant access to a more visible route that included Jefferson and Madison drives, closer to the National Mall.

The $170,000 savings from cutting the Mall loop is being directed toward extending the hours on the Union Station-Navy Yard route, which includes Pennsylvania Avenue SE and the Eighth Street SE entertainment area. That’s a pretty easy call, compared to deciding to cut the Convention Center- SW Waterfront route.

It’s 15,000 annual riders on the seasonal Mall loop compared to more than half a million on the daily Convention Center-SW Waterfront line. People in Southwest Washington say they use their route for work, shopping, dining and cultural excursions, and all they want DDOT to do is better locate a few stops in their community.

The report says this:

* Between L’Enfant Plaza and Mount Vernon Square, the route duplicates Metrorail’s Green and Yellow lines.

* The service is likely to be more productive after the Southwest Waterfront is more fully developed over the next four to five years. The route will also serve the visitor market if Circulator service is established on the National Mall, carrying tourists from the Mall to neighborhoods and to other visitor destinations north of the Mall.

* The route is recommended for near-term elimination and should be reinstated after Mall service is established and after development along the Waterfront increases. Cutting the route would save $2.7 million in annual operating costs

Other issues

Everybody wants a Circulator route. It’s not just about a convenient and relatively cheap way to cover ground that most Metro routes don’t cover. It’s also about community development and neighborhood status. The District government needs something like this report to sort through a variety of proposals for expansion.

So the report sets rational standards for ridership, efficiency and community enhancement that could be achieved by expanding the Circulator system beyond the five routes now operating.

“Over the next 10 years,” the report says, “the DC Circulator will grow to serve 12 corridors: nine new corridors and three extensions to existing routes.” It suggests general corridors for service rather than specific routes or alignments. “More detailed route planning, as well as targeted public outreach, will be completed before specific routings are determined,” according to the report.

The Circulator has been a big success because of pricing and branding, and because the size of the operation is manageable compared to the complex workings of Metrobus. As the District government considers expansion, it shouldn’t lose sight of the original mission and operating procedures that created this success story in the first place.