Maryland and Virginia transportation officials are once again negotiating a new Metrobus line to connect the National Harbor community in southern Prince George’s to Old Town Alexandria.
The push for the additional service comes after growing demand from workers in an area that has become an employment hub and a regional destination with entertainment, retail shops, restaurants and hotel and convention accommodations. There also are projections of greater demand with the opening of MGM National Harbor later this year, which will add an estimated 3,600 jobs to the area.
Metro and transportation officials have acknowledged the need for the transit link, but the conversations have been stuck on how to pay for the service. Jurisdictions on both sides of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge have yet to agree on a route or commit funding.
A new bus line could cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million in operating costs annually, depending on the level of service that the jurisdictions settle on, according to preliminary estimates circulated by Metro. But even years after the idea was first brought up, funding hasn’t been reserved for the line in the fiscal 2017 budget, which makes it unclear whether the service would be in place in time for MGM National Harbor’s opening.
National Harbor developer Jon Peterson is advocating for the service, calling the new bus connection necessary and long overdue.
“It’s hard to believe that all we have is one bus route,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of regionalism discussion that is going on these days… if we can start off with something as simple as having a bus connecting Virginia and Maryland that’s a start.”
Metro’s NH1 route provides service from National Harbor to the Southern Avenue Metro station, within Prince George’s. A bus to Alexandria would also connect to Metro, with the possibility of taking riders to the King Street or Eisenhower stations, both served by the Yellow line. The two stations are also closer in distance to National Harbor than Southern Avenue.
Officials involved in the discussions, including Peterson, say there seems to be a greater sense of urgency this time because of the addition of MGM’s workforce and the expectation that the resort will draw thousands of new visitors to the area. But getting everyone to agree and commit funding may take several months if not a year, they say.
Public officials and labor and community leaders in Prince George’s have long said that the continuing success of National Harbor, which opened in 2008, will require more investment in public transit. National Harbor currently has about 7,000 workers, many of them in the service industry, who depend heavily on public transportation. Tanger Outlets added about 900 jobs to the area when it opened two years ago.
National Harbor also draws about 11 million visitors each year, including many conventioneers who make a trip across the bridge during their stay using a private shuttle service. Nearly 2,000 people live at National Harbor and construction is underway on more residential units, which makes improvements to public transit even more critical, Peterson says.
“It’s not needed just because MGM is coming,” he said of the proposed bus route. “It’s actually needed today.”
Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye declined to discuss plans for the new bus route. But transportation officials in Virginia and Maryland say the transit agency is studying the need, cost and share for each jurisdiction. Metro in the past has said that there’s enough demand for the service, but what has held back the plan from implementation has been a lack of funding commitment from Maryland and Virginia.
In 2013, Metro proposed that bus link, but as a replacement to its current service to National Harbor. The plan was an attempt to address that request without increasing expenses, but it was widely criticized by county leaders, residents, and riders who said that rerouting the bus line to Virginia would be at the expense of Prince George’s riders. The community asked Metro to keep the NH1 route, and add a new one to Northern Virginia.
Metro withdrew the plan and said the new line to Alexandria would need to wait until the jurisdictions commit new funding for the service. Officials involved in the negotiations agree that Maryland has to take the lead on the initiative though costs for the route would be shared.
Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation declined to offer a time frame for when a bus line could be launched or whether Maryland would commit any funding. She said the state is still “in the very early discussions,” but then acknowledged that those conversations have been happening for years.
“Both Virginia and Maryland have recognized this as an important connection for people traveling between National Harbor and Alexandria,” she said. “We are looking at the overall value and demand for us to see how much it is needed and how it will benefit the region.”
Across the bridge, Alexandria officials say they see the benefit to adding the route as National Harbor continues to grow. A sign of the need is that currently people at National Harbor depend on a private shuttle service to travel back and forth from Alexandria, said Ramond Robinson, chief of the transit division in Alexandria.
“It will fill a void that is there right now,” he said. “As that area continues to put more activity there, it has more regional impact. The workforce and the economic development potential has a regional rippling effect.”
Though there are no commitments yet, Maryland and Virginia officials say this time the chances that the plan will move forward are higher because of the most recent boom at the National Harbor.
Peterson said he will be pushing for improvements.
“We know that’s a need as we move forward,” he said. “It benefits both Maryland and Virginia to have that bus route.”
In the long run, some Prince George’s County residents and civic leaders want Metro over the bridge to National Harbor. But with that project promising to be very costly, and no political will behind it, they say a bus line would be a start.
“At this point, we will be really satisfied with a good bus system,” Peterson said.