Sunny was pressed back into regular service Oct. 24, when workers at the Metrobus garage in Lorton went on strike, disrupting 15 Northern Virginia routes. Sunny now logs 16 to 20 miles a day — depending on traffic conditions — carrying Townsend back and forth from the Vienna Metro station.
What had been Townsend’s 50- to 55-minute commute from Burke to McPherson Square in the District pre-strike now is at least an hour and 25 minutes. The cost of his daily commute has risen from between $2.50 and $6 a day to $15, not including gas.
Nearly 120 bus operators, mechanics and utility workers at the Cinder Bed Road Metrobus garage are on strike against Transdev, the France-based multinational corporation with a Metro contract to handle bus operations at the facility.
Townsend is one of 8,500 people who normally use the now-limited or -shuttered routes on an average weekday, according to Metro estimates.
The workers are seeking wages and benefits comparable to Metrobus operators employed directly by the transit agency, who do the same job but make about $12 an hour more, according to the union. The bitter dispute has resulted in Transdev terminating the workers’ health insurance.
Negotiations have stopped, but Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said the transit agency will not intervene, dubbing it a private contract dispute. Townsend disagrees.
“It makes no sense,” Townsend said. “They are [Metro] buses. Your name is on the bus. You have a burden of responsibility.”
Principles put to the test
Townsend works as an administrator for a nonprofit center; his wife, Katie, teaches preschool part time. They prepare meals for the week and make slow-cooker dinners that turn into next-day lunches. The added commuting costs have eaten away at a surplus Townsend had saved up for more than a year in a workplace benefit fund, which allows him to devote a percentage of pretax wages to commuting.
Townsend supports the striking workers, and he said he hasn’t had to consider crossing the picket line to board buses staffed by replacement workers because there haven’t been any. If there were, he wonders whether his conviction would evaporate as quickly as the money in his bank account.
“I used to work for an attorney, where they would talk about the principle of the thing,” he said. “And they’d ask, how much are your principles worth?”
The strike affects about 6 percent of Metrobus’s 325 routes, but it threatens to spread across Northern Virginia and strand about 30,000 additional riders who use the Fairfax Connector. Like Metro, Fairfax County has outsourced the operation of its bus service to Transdev, which recently started contract talks with the Amalgamated Transit Union — which also represents the striking garage workers. Those workers overwhelmingly voted Saturday to authorize a strike that they could call at any time, union representatives said.
Caught in the middle are riders such as Townsend, who out of necessity cede control of their commutes to public transit systems they trust to offer a reliable, on-time ride to work and back. Transit systems such as Metro, looking to save money, have increasingly turned to private contractors to provide services.
The strike has left Townsend feeling powerless, and it reveals just how reliant a segment of the Washington region is on public transportation — even if they own cars.
Pre-strike, Townsend would typically leave his home in Burke and drive seven minutes to get in a “slug line,” Northern Virginia’s informal carpooling system. The ride would take him to 14th and K streets NW or New York Avenue, where he would walk to his office at McPherson Square. At the end of a normal workday, he would leave his office before 5 p.m. and take the Metro from McPherson Square to the Pentagon and join another slug line for the ride home. Total commuting cost for the day: $2.50.
But slug lines aren’t always reliable, especially if Townsend has to work later than normal, so about three days a week Townsend would take Metro to the Pentagon to ride Metrobus Route 18P, which runs to the Rolling Valley Park and Ride lot, where he can park Sunny free. Total daily cost: About $6.70.
But when Route 18P shut down, the strike not only took away his backup ride, it also forced him to stop slugging, because he needs a fail-safe connection from the District to Northern Virginia. Metro provides that, but the closest station to his home is Vienna — a 30-minute drive. So Townsend now drives Sunny to Vienna, pays $5 to park and boards the Orange Line to McPherson Square. Total cost with parking and fares: $15.
He’s done the math, and although he could drive into Washington, it would take too long in morning traffic and parking would cost too much.
Washington ranks 31st in the world for the price of daily parking, with an average cost of $22.37, and 13th for monthly parking, at an average cost of $273.35, according to a study by Parkopedia, a tech firm and international parking provider.
'Like a chess game'
Townsend, 39, grew up in Prince William County. His mother worked as a secretary and used slug lines to commute in the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes she would take him into the city, and he recalled marveling at the cranes and office building construction sites from the windows of strangers’ cars.
His LinkedIn page describes him as an “inquisitive problem solver who delights in learning new skills and using them to help others.” It’s a trait that had helped him come up with a variety of ways to get to and from work — before and since the strike. Slug in and out of the District on an uncomplicated workday, and use a seemingly infinite combination of walking, carpooling, driving, parking, and riding Metrobus and Metrorail on others. In extreme scenarios, call the wife or dad for a ride.
“Every commute’s like a chess game,” Townsend said. “You get to move in the places where your environment dictates your course of action.”
When people ask if he has a Plan B to get home, he says he has a “Plan Q” — a number of backup plans with variables that weigh the urgency of getting home against fare costs and time savings. It’s what it takes as a “veteran commuter,” he said, when uncertainty looms over a workday and his family is 20 miles away.
“It’s taken years to sort of perfect all those routes and all those contingencies so that when there is construction on a track and you do need an alternate, you’re not figuring things out on the go, you’re sort of going to one of your plans in the Rolodex.”
While he now must consider a more affordable combination, such as starting his commute at the nearest operating bus route, he knows it will cost him time at home. Since becoming a father, he has found that time is just as important as money.
He said there is no price for time he spends with Ethan, helping him understand Pokémon, building Legos, reciting state capitals or reading a Batman comic. Every day, he said, the race starts to get home as many minutes as possible before 8 p.m.: his son’s bedtime. Every minute spent commuting is time lost watching Ethan’s personality and capabilities bloom.
Even before the bus strike, Townsend could not always control what time he got home, but he could control when he left.
“We have a goal of eating breakfast together at 7 o’clock,” he said. “I used to arrive at 8:30 every day in the office and now I’m arriving closer to 9 because admittedly I still want to have breakfast with my family.”
Now he has to leave even earlier.
“That time has been taken away from me,” he said.
As he tries to navigate his way home each day, he “tweaks” what’s in his “sphere of control,” picking and choosing what side roads he can take to avoid the most traffic.
“Sometimes it’s kind of a game of ‘can I make this a little better?’ ” he said.
He said he tries to remember what the striking workers are going through without paychecks, and the privileges he has as he commutes. He keeps his disposition as bright as he can as the strike wears on and he steers Sunny home.