A new Metroway bus is seen at the Potomac Yard Center in Alexandria. (WMATA)

The new bus traveled along Jefferson Davis Highway last week free of traffic jams, delays and cars crisscrossing around it.

Freshly painted, the Metro bus, a 42-BRT, traveled its first miles on a route in Alexandria and Arlington, using a lane separate from the regular traffic.

The five-mile route is part of Metro’s newest service, Metroway, and it debuts Sunday, offering more frequent service, a dedicated travel lane and the new buses, which are more spacious, comfortable and fuel-efficient than older buses in the fleet. In the future, each stop along the route will be equipped with such technological features as real-time bus arrival displays and a pre-boarding payment system.

The service, which initially includes 22 bus stops between the Crystal City and Braddock Road Metro stations, is the Washington region’s introduction to bus rapid transit, a system that uses dedicated transit lanes to more quickly and more efficiently move masses of people along a corridor. It’s being used in cities across the United States.

“A lot of people will be looking to this project as a test concept to find out what lessons they can learn from it,” said Eric Randall, a senior transportation engineer at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “This is the first BRT in the region. It offers us an opportunity to apply some concepts for the first time — things like off-board fare collection, a design of bus stops with higher platforms and custom design shelters, a new branding and frequency of buses.”

It also is a bus rider’s dream come true in a metropolitan area where buses are often stuck in traffic, constantly late and traveling at speeds under than 10 mph.

Sunday’s launch begins with just under a mile of busway built between the northbound and southbound lanes of U.S. Route 1, also known as Jefferson Davis Highway, in Potomac Yard in Alexandria. Ten buses, freshly painted with blue branding that highlights the word “Metroway,” will run every 12 minutes along the full route and every six minutes during rush hours between the Crystal City Metro station and South Glebe Road. On weekends, buses will run every 20 minutes. Bus fares are the same as on Metrobus.

“It’s finally here,” Jim Hamre, Metro’s director of bus planning, said as he toured the new transitway last week, inspecting the bus facilities and testing the route alignment. Metro hasn’t had many dedicated lanes since most of the region’s more than 60 miles of bus lanes faded into history after the arrival of Metrorail in the 1970s. The start of Metroway service provides momentum for efforts to invest more in bus infrastructure, Hamre said.

“If this doesn’t become a catalyst for the area, it will be a missed opportunity,” he said. “It’s easily doable, it’s effective and it’s sustainable.”

The Crystal City Potomac Yard Transitway is the type of improved bus service that several jurisdictions in the area envision as a way to speed up public transit without the huge costs of building rail lines. Montgomery County is studying a plan to build more than 100 miles of express bus lanes, and the District is contemplating dedicated bus lanes in busy transit corridors, including 16th Street NW.

Alexandria could provide the model. Special signage is installed at the busway entry points indicating that only buses and authorized vehicles may enter. Maximum operating speeds are posted. The words “Bus Only” are painted in solid white at the each cross-section of the 0.8-mile transitway between Potomac Avenue and East Glebe Road. The pavement is a lighter color, which helps differentiate the bus lane from the general traffic lanes at Jefferson Davis Highway. And enforcement mechanisms have been approved in case other vehicles try to take over the new lanes.

By Tuesday, the bus stations with high platforms that allow level boarding were mostly finished. The distinctive blue glass shelters were in place at bus stops along the route, and crews had just finished installing benches. Bus flags and route information were to be installed during the week, and space for off-board payment machines and next-bus arrival screens was reserved for when they arrive within a year.

Metro workers confer at a Metroway stop in Alexandria on Aug. 19. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)

“You will be able to recognize that this is a different service, and we hope that we will be able to extend this type of bus rapid transit throughout the region,” said Sandra Marks, Alexandria’s deputy director for transportation. “We are hoping that it will be successful . . . and we are excited to be the first system in the region and have other jurisdictions and communities learn from us.”

For now, only Alexandria’s portion of the route will offer dedicated bus lanes; the rest will run in mixed traffic. But bus-only lanes are being created in Arlington’s 2.25-mile portion of the route and will be completed early next year. Within a year, buses will run much of the five-mile route in bus-only lanes. Parts of the trip will be made on the regular roadway that during peak hours will be designated bus-only; other parts of the route will run in mixed traffic.

Arlington and Alexandria officials say the project will enhance transit options in the corridor and support business and redevelopment in Crystal City and the growing Potomac Yard.

“This corridor is already rather congested, and there is already plenty of redevelopment and new growth in Arlington and Alexandria, so providing ways for people to get around more easily and not always having to rely on their car is one of our primary goals,” said Eric Balliet, an Arlington County spokesman. “A transitway provides that faster, more reliable trip that people are always looking for if they are looking for an alternative to their car.”

The project debuts after more than a decade of planning, which included studies of the potential growth in the Potomac Yard-Crystal City corridor, a lengthy federal environmental review, and multiple reports and community meetings. Some people doubted the need to invest in the bus infrastructure.

But because of the rising commercial and residential growth at the 295-acre former CSXT Potomac rail yard in Alexandria and the planned redevelopment of Crystal City, officials agreed to build the infrastructure. Developers donated land for bus-only lanes. The jurisdictions sought state and federal funding. The project’s cost is estimated at $42.3 million — $21 million from Alexandria and $21.3 million from Arlington.

“It shows the value of regional partnership and long-term planning,” said Hamre, who first pushed the bus rapid transit idea as a transit coordinator and transit section chief with Arlington. Now the transitway is ready just as the construction boom takes off. “It will be in place before the majority of folks move in and businesses open so that it will be part of the fabric of this community going on into the future to meet transportation requirements without adding to traffic and congestion.”

Ridership is expected to be low on the first day, but transit officials project having 3,570 daily riders by 2017. Many will be taking a connection from Metrorail into the growing community at Potomac Yard or commuting to work along the corridor. Some are expected to be residents getting around in the corridor, where there are large employment sites, restaurants, and entertainment and shopping sites.

Although it might not be viewed by some as true BRT because of its relatively short length and expectations of moderate ridership, transportation officials in the region say it is a taste of what a larger system could be. And it will eventually offer innovative features that are unique to bus rapid transit.

The new off-board payment option, for example, has the potential to improve the flow of passengers on and off buses and speed bus travel. Metro is working with Alexandria and Arlington to figure out how such a system would work best with the SmarTrip card and with the future fare system Metro is in the process of procuring. Some transportation officials say that if it works, a similar system could be adopted in busy bus corridors across the region.

The incorporation of bus arrival information at the stops, similar to what is available at Metro platforms, and the dedicated lanes will feel like traveling in the rail system, officials said.

The project also is viewed as an important step in advancing a regional transportation plan that highlights bus rapid transit as one answer to congestion and mobility needs.

“The opening of the transitway in Alexandria is a demonstration of not just thinking and talking about it, but acting on it,” said Kanti Srikanth, the director of transportation planning at the Council of Governments.

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