If you were hoping for new D.C. Circulator connections from Georgetown to the U Street corridor or the National Cathedral, you will have to wait.
The city’s top transportation official said the District doesn’t have the infrastructure to support an expansion, putting on hold a plan to grow the six-line system with new routes and the extension of some of the existing routes.
“Based on current operations we are not in a position to expand the fleet,” D.C. Department of Transportation Director Leif A. Dormsjo said at a budget oversight hearing last week. He said the main holdup is the lack of a maintenance facility with sufficient capacity to support the system’s needs.
The current bus garage in Northeast is inadequate to house the Circulator’s 67 buses. Recent inspections of the system found cramped conditions, and cited the lack of space as a reason buses are sustaining exterior damage. The consulting firm Transit Resource Center, which conducted two audits one in August and another in January, also identified multiple critical safety and operational defects.
City officials said many of the problems cited in the first audit, including mishandling of day-to-day wear-and-tear issues, have been corrected. The latest, and less in depth audit, showed some improvements, but still found significant failures in the system with each inspected bus having as many as nine defects.
DDOT owns the buses and pays the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to provide the service. WMATA contracts out the service to First Transit, which provides the current maintenance space. It has a two-year, $41.6 million contract with Metro, the transit agency said.
The audit findings underscore the urgent need for the city to provide a proper garage to house and maintain the fleet, Dormsjo said.
“We certainly can’t contemplate expansion if right now we have a maintenance facility that supports only 50 percent of our needs,” he said. “I will be colossally irresponsible to say that we can deliver on an even bigger Circulator fleet when we are working as best as we can to deal with the current service needs.”
As recent as this year, the city’s six-year capital improvement budget included funding to expand the 10-year-old system and the design of the new bus garage. DDOT spokesman Terry Owers said $26 million allocated for the bus garage in the 2016-2021 capital budget was re-purposed to fund Metro. The agency still has $2 million for site selection and design of the new maintenance facility.
In the plans for expansion was an extension of the Rosslyn-Georgetown line to the U Street corridor, a link that has been in demand by the Georgetown business community, workers and university students. Budget documents say the addition would add as many as 500,000 new passengers to the Circulator.
The Circulator also planned to extend the Union Station-Georgetown line to the National Cathedral along Wisconsin Avenue NW, a project viewed as a priority to provide more accessibility to that city landmark.
At the budget oversight hearing last week, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) questioned why the proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 doesn’t include funding for the restoration of the Circulator bus line to the Southwest Waterfront. He reminded DDOT that the city made a commitment to add the service when the new D.C. United stadium opens at Buzzard Point in 2018.
“This is a commitment that we had made as a city,” Allen told Dormsjo. “We passed a law that says we will do it… we have to find a way to do it.”
Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Committee on Transportation, said she also was under the impression that the city was moving forward with Union Station-Georgetown line extension to the National Cathedral. But Dormsjo made it clear it’s not happening.
“I don’t think we were intended to make that extension anytime soon given the difficulty we have with the on-time performance with the current route,” he said.
A report issued by the DDOT in September 2014, laid out a plan to more than double the number of Circulator routes by 2024. Last year, DDOT launched its sixth route, serving the tourist areas in and around the National Mall. It provides more than 5.1 million trips annually.
Dormsjo said besides design money for the new bus garage, the project is largely unfunded. But he said the city is “aggressively” trying to find a location for the new garage and that task is proving to be difficult.
“There’s not many people who are waiting furiously to have us bring buses into their backyard,” he said.