●●Plans for bus rapid transit (BRT) face obstacles in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia.
●The desired “big picture” solution — a redesign to update the region’s entire bus network — has stalled while authorities argue over who’s going to oversee it.
“There is no ruler of this chaotic mess that is the region’s bus system,” said Joe McAndrew, transportation policy director at the Greater Washington Partnership.
Current reality does not resemble the portrait that government and private groups painted last year, when they presented high-profile plans to use faster, more reliable buses and a cohesive system to improve transportation in the region.
Then, the Metro-funded Washington Area Bus Transformation Project called for making buses the number-one choice for road users by 2030. Business and nonprofit groups in the MetroNow coalition urged a tenfold increase in dedicated bus lanes by 2025 to help raise buses’ on-time performance from 60 percent to 90 percent.
Instead of pressing ahead with urgency toward these goals, area jurisdictions are mired in disagreements. There are early signs of a tug-of-war between Metro and local and state governments over how to share the costs. Fearing a backlash from drivers, elected officials are wary of converting traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes.
In some respects, the region is moving backward. In the fall, the administration of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) cut funds for the Corridor Cities Transitway in northern Montgomery County. County leaders view the long-planned busway as vital to helping health sciences companies and other high-tech industries located there.
Now Metro’s proposal to end or shrink service on dozens of bus routes has drawn widespread criticism from the public and elected officials.
“Cutting Metrobus service for Montgomery County would be counter to our regional goals of reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions,” said a letter to Metro from all nine county council members and 26 state legislators.
A similar letter from all 12 D.C. Council members said cutbacks in bus service would hit the city’s most vulnerable populations hardest.
“Inadequate transit options deepen inequity by disproportionately impacting low-income, elderly and disabled residents,” the letter said.
Riders’ reaction to the transit agency’s proposed budget, at hearings and in comments submitted to Metro, has focused overwhelmingly on the bus proposals and been almost uniformly negative.
In Metro’s defense, it says the routes where service would end or shrink are either little used or close to alternative transit. It sees such culling as necessary from time to time to adjust to changes in ridership patterns, and to save money that can pay for higher priorities.
In addition, Metro’s budget proposes to increase bus frequency, especially on weekends, or extend hours on 22 high-ridership routes. Among several recommended fare changes, it wants to offer free transfers between bus and rail, a savings of $1.50 per trip.
“People are focusing obviously on the bus cuts, but you also have to focus on ways we’re improving bus service,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said. “Does it mean some people have to walk a bit further [to new routes]? Yes, it does . . . but I have to look at this from a regional perspective and a financial perspective.”
Metro estimates that the number of riders benefiting from the budget as a whole outnumber those penalized by more than 10-1.
That argument isn’t satisfying elected officials and MetroNow, the coalition of business and nonprofit groups that successfully lobbied for the historic Metro dedicated funding agreement. The coalition says bus service is so important, especially for those who can’t afford cars, that routes should not be killed to save money except as part of a global redesign under the bus transformation project.
“We’re not in a recession where we should be looking at cutting service to balance budgets,” said McAndrew, whose organization is part of MetroNow. “It shouldn’t be done as part of a budget process but part of a strategic effort to figure out how best to serve communities that may lose service.”
A letter from Prince George’s County executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and County Council chair Todd M. Turner (D) said, “Cutting service now will circumvent this process [in the bus transformation project] and eliminate our opportunity to determine how certain Metrobus lines can better serve our communities.”
Wiedefeld countered that a regionwide restructuring of service is a long-term project, whereas he needs savings now. Metro is legally obligated to limit growth in its operating subsidy to 3 percent a year.
“We have a budget cycle that we have to meet,” Wiedefeld said. “That [strategic] effort is a good 18-month, 2-year effort.”
In Northern Virginia, the proposed bus cuts are stirring resentment at what officials see as policies favoring the District. Wiedefeld’s budget proposes to restore some late-night rail service, a change sought by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
“There is a sense that Metro is extending late night service in the District, which is a good thing, but on the backs of suburban commuters and bus riders,” Fairfax County supervisor James R. Walkinshaw (D-Braddock) said.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission took a swipe at the District’s action last year to decriminalize fare evasion on Metro.
“We are compelled to note the increasing impact that fare evasion has on [Metro’s] operating budget,” the commission said in a letter to Metro. “The estimated $40 million in annual revenue losses due to fare evasion could fund the proposed Metrobus service reductions in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland.”
The Metro board will make the final decision on the bus proposals. Individual jurisdictions could decide to save some of the routes by agreeing to pay for the service themselves.
Meanwhile, other plans to expand bus service are having mixed success. The District has created dedicated bus lanes on some downtown streets, but there has been less progress in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs.
Fairfax approved plans in 2018 to construct a BRT line on Richmond Highway (Route 1), but the project is only about halfway funded.
Montgomery is building a BRT line on Colesville Road (Route 29), but there’s a dispute over whether to give it a dedicated lane at the southern end. It’s also arriving after a prolonged wait.
“In Montgomery County, we’ve been talking about a rapid bus network for more than a decade, and we still don’t have one,” County Council member Evan Glass (D-At Large) said.
The bus transformation project is supposed to speed up progress, by crafting a unified strategy for Metrobus and eight local bus services such as Montgomery’s Ride On and Fairfax Connector. Other metro areas including Richmond and Houston have had success with such redesigns.
But a disagreement over who’s in charge has hampered the project. In September, the project recommended creation of a task force to implement the plan, including members appointed by the Virginia and Maryland governors, the District mayor, Metro board members and the project’s own executive steering committee.
But local jurisdictions, especially in Northern Virginia, objected that it included no one from the local transit providers or the governments that fund them. So the task force plan has been shelved, at least temporarily. Metro staff is to meet with local jurisdictions and bus systems to find a way forward.
The disarray has frustrated officials and advocates.
A local transportation official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive, said: “We are committed to be at the table. We don’t know whose table it is.”