A new Metrobus line that will connect the growing National Harbor community to Alexandria is launching this fall — the culmination of years-long efforts to extend transit across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
The service, which Metro will start as a pilot, responds to increased calls for more public transportation in one of the fastest-growing areas of the Washington region, and one long underserved by transit.
The NH2 route is expected to debut in October, in time for the opening later this year of the MGM National Harbor casino resort. The resort will bring 3,600 new jobs to National Harbor, already a booming entertainment hub with hotels, restaurants and shopping.
The service is spurring talk about expanding mass transit in southern Prince George’s County, with some advocates hoping a successful bus line might help revive plans to bring Metro to National Harbor.
“Our transportation options right now are poor, so this is certainly a step in the right direction,” said Zeno St. Cyr, a Fort Washington resident and longtime advocate for better transit in the southern part of the county. “Ultimately, the long-term solution is to extend Metro’s Yellow Line over the Wilson Bridge.”
A rail extension from Alexandria’s Huntington Metro station over the bridge to National Harbor has been on the books since before National Harbor was built, but there has been little effort to make it happen even as National Harbor has become a regional destination and an important economic development driver in Maryland.
But as the waterfront community continues to grow this year with the opening of the $1.3-billion MGM casino resort, residents and transportation officials say better transit is key to meeting the needs of the larger workforce and also alleviating growing traffic congestion in the area.
The new bus service, some say, will help in the short term. But with the growth expected to accompany the planned hotels, retail and housing developments in the pipeline, much more is needed.
“Because those rail projects take so long, we need to start planning now,” St. Cyr said, referring to Metro.
Access to public transportation has been an issue at National Harbor since it opened in 2008. There is no Metro station within walking distance of the 350-acre development on the shores of the Potomac. The closest Metro stop is Huntington, about five miles away across the Wilson Bridge in Alexandria. The nearest Prince George’s station is Southern Avenue, seven miles away.
The Metrobus line that serves the development, the NH1, connects to Metro’s Green Line at Southern Avenue. It wasn’t until recently that Metrobus extended that service to midnight. The county’s own small bus system runs trips to the complex, but only on weekdays.
The NH2 will provide the extended service many of the 7,000 people who work at National Harbor have been waiting for, officials say.
“This is a winner for the region,” said Metro board member Malcolm Augustine, who represents Prince George’s. “We have a growing employment center, a place that is driving the regional economy, and we need to use mass transit to get to it and from it.”
He added, “It’s already not the easiest place from a transportation standpoint, particularly for automobile traffic. We absolutely need to provide as many ways as possible from a mass-transit standpoint to get people to and from there.”
The nine-month pilot will add daily service from Alexandria’s Huntington and King Street Metro stations to downtown National Harbor, with stops at the Oxon Hill Park-and-Ride and MGM National Harbor. Buses will run every 30 minutes from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Metro officials say starting the service as a pilot will allow the agency to evaluate ridership demand. If the pilot is successful, the line will be added as a permanent route next year. Annual ridership is projected at about 230,000.
The service will cost $2.9 million a year to operate and will be funded with local subsidies, Metro said. The Peterson Companies, developer of National Harbor, will contribute $500,000 to offset Metro’s operating costs. The plan has been approved by a Metro committee, and the full board is expected to give final approval this month.
Jon Peterson, who with his father helped build National Harbor, said he expects the bus line to continue after the pilot because there is already high demand for a transit link between the two communities. He also expects the service to widen the labor pool for employers in the area by eliminating the transportation barrier.
A popular water taxi shuttle service that ferries National Harbor guests to Old Town Alexandria serves more than 30,000 people a year, he said. But while the 20-minute ride is an appealing option for tourists, at $7 each way, it isn’t affordable for many of the service workers in the area.
The developer’s contribution was key to finalizing the plan for the route after years of discussions between the jurisdictions on both sides of the Potomac about how to pay for it. Yet even now, questions over funding remain.
At an Alexandria City Council meeting Tuesday, Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) questioned why MGM National Harbor isn’t pitching in. City transportation officials reassured the council that they’ll make sure the city pays only its fair share. The city approved $566,000 for the pilot.
Still, officials agree that service would benefit both sides of the Potomac. In addition to adding an option for commuters, it also could boost tourism, they said.
The limited bus options have made National Harbor, near the Capital Beltway and Interstate 295, a car-centric destination. Traffic congestion is a daily concern for area residents — and then there are the major events that draw thousands more to the waterfront, such as the lighting of the Christmas tree during the holidays or Black Friday at the outlet center nearby, which create additional traffic nightmares.
But while residents are grateful for the relief the bus service is expected to bring, what they’re really hoping is that it will ease the path for that they really want: Metro.
Some of the infrastructure is already in place: The new Woodrow Wilson Bridge was built with capacity to incorporate rail.
However, the project isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of Maryland’s transportation priorities, and Metro has put on hold any new expansion while it focuses on rebuilding the current system.
The project ranks sixth on Prince George’s annual list of transportation priorities sent to the Maryland Department of Transportation — a list that is used to prioritize funding. The Purple Line light-rail project that will connect Prince George’s and Montgomery counties has topped the list in recent years. Construction on that system is scheduled to begin later this year, with trains carrying passengers by spring 2022.
County officials say after the Purple Line is built, efforts will shift to bringing a viable rail line to connect southern Prince George’s to Northern Virginia.
“Over time what we will see is the demand for the bus line will help to reinforce that clear need to explore rail,” said Martin Harris, a top Prince George’s transportation official. “It’s a wise thing for us to continue to keep that goal out there and keep it clear that it’s a priority for us, because this area is going to do nothing but continue to expand, and having that as a destination with transit will mean everybody in the region will benefit.”
Augustine, the Metro board member, said that for now, bus will be Metro’s only commitment to the area.
“There is no doubt that as this area continues to grow, the demand will be there,” he said. “But we have to take care of the current system first before we can start looking at those demands.”