Metrobus and regional bus systems in the Washington area are too slow, complex and increasingly threatened by competition, according to a new analysis.
The region’s bus network will continue to be hindered unless a concerted effort is made to improve continuity among the various systems and prioritize bus travel through dedicated lanes and other measures, according to the analysis aimed at overhauling the network.
The preliminary findings from a $2.2 million bus study were presented Thursday at a meeting of the Metro board, with presenters from the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation and the Boston Consulting Group laying out the factors contributing to the steep ridership declines the region’s bus systems are experiencing. Bus usage is down tens of thousands of daily trips, an estimated 13 percent between 2012 and 2017.
Bus systems around the country are facing similar declines, but there are several things cited as contributing factors that are within officials’ control, according to the authors of the analysis.
“I think what folks are looking for — they’re clearly looking for buses to provide regional connectivity — not just for folks who depend on it, but for folks who have discretion for how they get around,” said Robert Puentes, president of the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation, who chairs the executive steering committee for the bus transformation project.
Puentes said the solutions come down to “improving the rider experience” and establishing who is in charge of making and paying for the improvements, among other things.
The bus network overhaul study, targeted for completion in time for Metro’s fiscal 2021 budget, which begins July 1, 2020, is at the midway point — following an analysis of the factors contributing to the declines and the needs of the regional bus system.
The analysis also constructed a detailed profile of the region’s bus riders: Almost half of Metrobus users are low-income, living in households that make less than $30,000 a year. Most Metrobus riders live in the District, and the vast majority of the region’s bus riders — 85 percent — take the bus to their destination, meaning they don’t transfer to the rail system, according to the analysis. Further, almost half of bus riders travel outside of peak periods.
Metro carries an estimated 443,000 of the region’s 620,000 bus riders, and the study looks to build cohesion between the transit agency and other systems carrying riders in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Metro board chairman Jack Evans said he was excited about the potential of the analysis. But adopting some of the sweeping changes it is likely to recommend would pose a challenge, he said.
“It would require an enormous sea change in the attitude in the region — for instance having dedicated bus lanes on Wisconsin Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Georgia Avenue and a number of other thoroughfares,” he said.
The District lags behind some comparable metropolitan areas in its implementation of bus lanes — with dedicated lanes running only on a limited stretch of Georgia Avenue and an area outside the Gallery Place Metro station and plans for bus lanes along 16th Street NW by 2020.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said it’s too soon to say whether the analysis would recommend a full redesign of the bus system, as was done in Houston and Baltimore, but it presents some interesting concepts.
“Some of the larger concepts that they’ve seen in other areas, I think, are good to talk about here,” Wiedefeld said. “Particularly some of the things to improve the speed of the bus, the efficiency of the bus.”
Among the key conclusions: As the region has become more congested and street parking has increased, officials have either eliminated or failed to enforce and prioritize bus lanes, causing buses to slow down. In 2008, buses were able to travel an average speed of 11 mph; today the average speed on city streets is 10 mph, a 9 percent decrease.
“It seems insignificant, but in fact that 9 percent drop is costing you about $30 million,” Rich Davey, associate director at the Boston Consulting Group, told Metro officials, citing increased labor expenses and fuel costs. That amount alone, he said, would be enough to cover the region’s newly imposed 3 percent cap in growth in Metro’s operating budget.
Meanwhile, the cap itself poses a challenge for an agency losing ridership revenue and which would likely need to make investments in bus service to offset the ridership losses.
“Something has got to give, if you will, to make that work,” Davey said.
The goal of the project, Puentes said, is to make buses “the mode of choice for the region’s roads by 2030.” It will likely recommend a more regional governance structure and a clearer delineation of funding sources — rather than disparate jurisdictional bus subsidies covering routes in their municipalities.
But some Metro board members were skeptical that the region should set its sights so high.
Board member David Horner pressed Puentes and Davey on whether their vision was “aspirational” or a research-based conclusion, while Christian Dorsey argued that perhaps the experts should tamp down their expectations. Dorsey asked, for example, whether the goal was to have buses become the dominant commuting mode at all times of day or just during peak hours. The answer: ideally, all day.
“To me that seems to be a vision that is well beyond our reach,” Dorsey said. “I think it’s important that the vision be realistic.”
In other business, board members representing the District pushed to restore late-night rail service and return to the Metro system’s 3 a.m. close. The moratorium on late-night service has been in place since 2016, when the agency’s year-long SafeTrack maintenance program was implemented.
Metro staff presented several scenarios aimed at maintaining needed track time while addressing the District’s desire for late-night service. The scenarios, which are not formal proposals at this point are:
●Reverting to 2016 hours: Monday-Thursday: 5 a.m.-midnight; Friday: 5 a.m.-3 a.m.; Saturday: 7 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sunday: 7 a.m.-midnight.
● Scenario A: Monday-Thursday: 5:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday: 5:30 a.m.-3 a.m.; Saturday: 9 a.m.-3 a.m.; Sunday: 10:30 a.m.-midnight
● ●Scenario B: Monday-Thursday: 5 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Friday: 5 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday: 7 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday: 7 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
●Maintaining current hours: Monday-Thursday: 5 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Friday: 5 a.m.-1 a.m.; Saturday: 7 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sunday: 8 a.m.-11 p.m.
The most extreme scenario, according to the agency, would be a return to pre-SafeTrack hours. The change would cost $45 million and reduce on-time performance by 5 percent because the agency doesn’t believe it could reliably support that level of service.
Board members representing Virginia and Maryland were skeptical of the idea of returning to pre-SafeTrack hours.
“The jurisdictions simply do not have any more money to put into [Metro’s operations] at this point,” said board member Paul Smedberg, who represents Virginia. Smedberg also said extending service hours “could harm” Metro’s preventive maintenance efforts.
Evans said Metro plans to make its presentation to D.C. officials at the Jan. 29 Mayor-Council breakfast, after which he and board member Corbett A. Price will receive guidance on how to proceed. Price and Evans had previously vowed to exercise a jurisdictional veto to force Metro to restore the late-night service, with 3 a.m. weekend closings.
“This will be an opportunity for my colleagues and the mayor to really understand the ramifications of any action we take,” Evans said. “I think there still is a very strong sentiment in the District to go back to the late hours.”
But, he added, “none of these are easy options.”
Meanwhile, Wiedefeld said, Metro continues to examine the impacts of the federal government shutdown, which is costing the agency $400,000 a day due to the loss of federal government workers who use the system. The latest blow to the workers and Metro: The agency estimates more than 21,000 will lose their commuter benefits beginning Friday, as SmartBenefits allocations meant to incentivize transit use will not be disbursed for the month of February.
“We’re all working through that to understand what that means,” Wiedefeld said.
But he said it was too soon to tell whether Metro will need to cut service or make other adjustments to compensate for the lost revenue.
“If this continues further, there’s things that we have to start to think about,” he said. “But none of them are things that we’d like to do.”