The coalition also proposes reducing fares in some cases by allowing free transfers between buses and Metro, and discounted fares for low-income riders, such as those on Medicaid.
The proposals represent a daunting task, partly because they require cooperation and a willingness to change on the part of a sprawling collection of bus service providers, state and local transportation authorities, and the politicians who oversee them.
Moving people out of cars and onto buses is one of the most effective — and least costly — ways to reduce traffic congestion. MetroNow sees it as necessary to catch up with other metro regions such a Richmond, Seattle and Houston, which have increased bus ridership using similar steps.
“Buses carry as many people as heavy rail and probably have greater impact and effects in terms of inclusion, job mobility, all the things we’re trying to do as a region,” said former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, executive director of the Federal City Council. “Right now, we’re ahead of the rest of the country getting behind capital funding for heavy rail. We’re behind the rest of the country when it comes to real innovations and initiatives on the bus.”
In addition to the Federal City Council, the groups leading the campaign include the Greater Washington Partnership, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the 2030 Group, the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
The MetroNow coalition, formed in January 2018, led the push by employer groups, transit advocates, labor unions and others that played an important role in persuading Virginia, Maryland and the District to give Metro $500 million a year in new, dedicated funding.
The new effort depends in part on overcoming a quiet and unfortunate prejudice against the bus, which many people view as a conveyance of last resort.
A goal is “getting more and more people acclimatized [to the idea] that buses are cool,” said Williams, a regular bus rider. That could be easier than in the past, he said, because young people have a more positive attitude about buses than their elders.
“For millennials, this is like a ‘duh,’ ” Williams said. “For the boomers, there’s a stigma around buses, still.”
In one sense, it’s a terrible time to unveil an ambitious plan to lure people onto the bus. Nearly 40,000 bus users in Northern Virginia have been suffering from severely reduced service because of strikes by workers for the Fairfax Connector and Metrobus. The Connector strike was suspended late Sunday when operators agreed to return to work while negotiations continue.
But organizers view the campaign as a multiyear project. They picked now as the starting point because the Metro board is scheduled to receive an update Thursday on the agency’s bus project.
Metro’s project — whose initial recommendations were made public in September — has the same broad goals as the MetroNow proposal.
But the private-sector plan is much more specific; it sets numerical goals to achieve by 2025.
Under the coalition’s plan, dedicated bus lanes would increase from today’s 6½ miles to 60 miles. Stoplights adjusted to give buses priority would increase from 250 intersections to 600. The region’s bus ridership would grow from 600,000 trips per day to more than 800,000.
MetroNow has “taken the next step of putting in specific targets and goals that are certainly in the spirit of the [Metro] strategy,” said Rich Davey, director of the Metro Bus Transformation Project and a partner at the Boston Consulting Group.
One target that seems modest is to increase the average speed for buses in the region to 12 mph from 10 mph. Organizers defended it, however, noting that it represents a 20 percent increase. It also would reverse a trend over the past 10 years in which the average Metrobus speed dropped one mile per hour.
Skeptics are justified in wondering whether any of this will come to fruition. Several studies over the years have recommended systemwide bus improvements in the region, with few results.
A major reason is the competition among parochial interests of Metrobus and eight other regional bus service providers, including Ride On in Montgomery County, the Bus in Prince George’s, ART in Arlington and Fairfax Connector.
Add to that the need to get transportation authorities to agree on dedicated lanes and signal changes and legislators to provide more money, and the difficulties multiply.
Bob Buchanan, president of the 2030 Group, said the region’s elected officials must act forcefully to get the various agencies to work toward the same goal.
“There’s a natural reluctance of the current providers to acknowledge that the current system is as broken as it is and needs to be transformed as much as it does,” Buchanan said. “Some of the elected leaders are wrestling with how much confrontation they want to go through.”
Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation and chair of the executive steering committee for the Metro project, said private-sector pressure was needed to achieve the plan’s goals.
“Having the business leadership involved in this is critically important,” Puentes said. “The whole thing isn’t going to go very strong or very fast unless we have a strong outside advocate, and that’s the MetroNow coalition.”