The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Circulator will get new buses, streamline routes as part of plan to improve service

The Mall route added in 2015 was the latest addition to the D.C. Circulator bus system. Plans for expansion remain on hold.
The Mall route added in 2015 was the latest addition to the D.C. Circulator bus system. Plans for expansion remain on hold. (Aaron C. Davis/The Washington Post)

After a year of frequent bus breakdowns and poor on-time performance, the D.C. Circulator is looking to 2018 with more than hope to turn around the troubled system. Officials say they have a plan.

The D.C. Circulator plans to add buses to replace the problematic ones in operation, and it plans to streamline service on some of the system's underperforming routes. The D.C. Department of Transportation plans to take over management of the six-route system from Metro.

That transition would come on the heels of an expected move by DDOT, which funds the Circulator, to issue a new operations contract in the spring and possibly replace the operator, First Transit.

The goal, officials say, is to transition from an operation with poor oversight and service disruptions to one with reliable service for the 5.4 million riders a year who use the system.

"We want to get back to a position of strength in terms of the quality and reliability of our service," said Sean Egan, deputy associate director for transit operations at DDOT.

Launched in 2005, the Circulator serves key activity centers in the District's four quadrants with service that promises a bus every 10 minutes at a cost of $1 per ride, half the price of a Metrobus ride.

In recent years, however, meeting the 10-minute promise has proved impossible with the Circulator's aging fleet and inadequate maintenance.

On-time performance has dropped to 76 percent, according to a DDOT report issued in December. The target is to have the interval of time between arrivals, or headways, under 15 minutes for 80 percent of its fleet.

But officials say they are ready to turn the page. The immediate goal is to get the D.C. Circulator to return to reliable service.

The Circulator will add 40 new buses by the end of 2018, hoping to reduce the frequency of breakdowns that have led to interrupted service and long waits for passengers. The new vehicles will allow the system to replace 35 of its oldest buses and still expand its fleet.

City officials say previous plans to further grow operations remain on hold. In 2014, officials with D.C. Circulator had offered a vision for the city's bus system that sought to double the number of routes within a decade and expand some of the existing ones starting in 2015. But since that proposal, only one route — around the Mall — has been added.

That route has proved popular among tourists. It passes by some of Washington's key destinations, including the Smithsonian museums, the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But it has also failed to meet ridership projections.

Ridership has declined in all routes, following a trend in major bus systems across the United States that experts blame on low gas prices and the surge of new modes of transportation, including on-demand ride-hailing services and biking.

That may be the reasoning behind a new DDOT report that focuses on using current resources to enhance the Circulator's existing services. It calls for adjusting service by taking away service in areas with low ridership and adding buses where there is greater demand. Plans also call for eliminating stops to get buses moving quicker on one route and adding hours of operation along other ones.

Frequent bus breakdowns take toll on D.C. Circulator service

The improvements have come slowly for riders. On any given day in the summer, as many as one-third of the Circulator buses were taken out of service because of mechanical problems, city transportation officials said. Some buses were taken off routes after morning safety checkups, while others broke down in the middle of their routes, leaving passengers stranded and others waiting at bus stops.

Poor oversight of the system led to troubling safety and operational flaws, according to two audits commissioned by DDOT in recent years. The transportation agency owns and funds the Circulator, but Metro manages the contract and provides oversight of First Transit, which the audits found failed to provide basic maintenance procedures.

Steps to improve the safety and daily maintenance of the fleet have been taken since the 2015 and 2016 audits, officials say. But the system is still constrained by the size of its fleet and a lack of an adequate maintenance and storage facility, according to the audits.

And that remains a challenge for the system. The city is working to identify sites that are big enough to properly maintain the fleet.

Todd Brogan, a field organizer with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1764, which represents the Circulator's 200 workers, said the maintenance problem goes beyond space constraints.

"Absolutely the lack of proper maintenance facility is a problem, but it is not an excuse for not running a proper maintenance program," he said. "When you cut corners on safety and cut corners on worker compensation, and when you try to expand without being very good at the core of the service, things start to fall apart."

Union leaders say they, too, expect 2018 to be a turning point for the system. They are urging the city to move away from contracting out service.

"This is the year for Circulator to course-correct and get on the right path," Brogan said.

The most immediate changes could take shape this spring in the form of service adjustments. The proposal, which will be presented at a public hearing this week, includes significant changes for two of the weakest-performing routes — Union Station-Navy Yard and Potomac Avenue-Skyland. Under the plan, the latter route would no longer serve the Potomac Avenue Metro station or Skyland Town Center. It would instead connect to Union Station and the Congress Heights Metro via Barracks Row and downtown Anacostia. The route would add weekend service.

The Union Station-Navy Yard route would stop serving Union Station. Instead, it would connect to the Eastern Market and L'Enfant Plaza Metro stations to offer service to the new development at the Wharf.

The proposal also calls for fewer bus stops on the Georgetown-Union Station route, new hours on some routes and the elimination of paper passes.

Residents will have a chance to comment from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Miracle Theatre, at 535 Eighth St. SE.

The proposed extension of the Dupont-Georgetown-Rosslyn route, to serve the U Street corridor and Howard University, will need to wait a little longer, officials said. Though there is ridership demand in the corridor, officials said, more money and vehicles are needed to support the expansion.

"Once we demonstrate that we can reliably provide that 10-minute service that we advertise and once we have identified capacity for expansion of our maintenance facility space, then we will look at potential expansion," DDOT's Egan said.