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With ridership falling, Metro will spend $2.2 million to study bus business model

Metro has hired a consultant to conduct a $2.2 million study on the role and business model of its bus system. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

In recent years, cities from Houston to Baltimore to Richmond have conducted sweeping overhauls of their bus systems to speed up service and realign downtown-focused “hub-and-spoke” maps into networks better serving neighborhoods across their cities. Now, Metro will embark on a major bus study of its own, but it’s too soon to know if a ground-up redesign will come of it.

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Metro has hired engineering firm Aecom to conduct an analysis of the business model of the Metrobus system — including the development of a long-term strategic road map for Metrobus, efforts to establish regional coordination on the system, and cost controls to ensure the Metrobus budget falls within the 3 percent subsidy growth caps imposed by new legislation establishing dedicated funding.

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Aecom was hired in May and the study could last as long as 18 months. The agency is spending up to $2.2 million for the analysis, she said.

The study comes at a critical time for Metrobus, which is facing severe ridership declines amid a steep drop in rail trips, higher fares and rising competition from services such as Uber and Lyft. Metro said bus ridership through the period from January through March — the most recent available data — was down nearly 7 percent year-over-year, and came in 3 percent under forecasts. Quarterly ridership was 12 percent lower than the year before, and average weekday boardings were down more than 10 percent for every month last quarter.

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According to the request for proposals, the study seeks to “develop a consensus-based regionally-driven strategy that assesses the region’s bus system and proposes a strategy for Metrobus within the region and a roadmap to implement the strategy.” Get that?

Metro says it wants to take a regional look at the bus system and overall network “with the potential to redefine and reimagine those elements” as it looks toward the next decade or two.

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“The team will also be tasked with assembling a wide range of stakeholders within and external to the Authority, facilitating meetings, discussions, and workshops, explaining trade-offs from disparate goals, and gaining consensus for perspectives on the strategy for Metrobus’ role and business model to strengthen our long-term fiscal sustainability,” the request for proposals says.

Basically, the study aims to develop a plan to make Metrobus as effective as possible, while establishing a type of regional ownership of the system. While Metro owns its 1,600-bus fleet and is responsible for maintaining the buses and bus garages, bus service itself is funded by the jurisdictions that Metro serves.

Metro is mulling a major redesign of the bus system. But first, officials need to figure out why people aren’t riding.

Further, while Metro’s planning office directs bus strategy, it is up to those localities to build the infrastructure to support the system’s needs. The setup is part of the reason there are disparities in the type of service provided by the jurisdictions. An Arlington-Alexandria corridor, for example, hosts Metroway, a bus rapid-transit network with dedicated lanes; the District, meanwhile, has the highest daily ridership of any jurisdiction but compared to peer cities lacks an extensive network of dedicated bus lanes. It plans to build dedicated lanes on 16th Street, with Bus Rapid Transit features, by 2020. Meanwhile, there are major regional bus initiatives beyond Metro’s aegis — including the Richmond Highway Bus Rapid Transit in Fairfax County and plans to construct a Bus Rapid Transit corridor along U.S. Route 29 in Montgomery County.

A long-term strategy for Metrobus aims at cohesion. It could produce a plan calling for a more extensive network of bus lanes, for example, or service adjustments to maximize ridership or coverage, or even a consolidation of underused routes. The main goal is to establish a unified regional plan.

And aspects of it could be implemented sooner than 2020, officials say.

Transit advocates hope the initiative can reverse the ridership slide and swing the fortunes of the bus system. In a statement of principles released last week, the “Fund It, Fix It” coalition, an amalgamation of pro-transit groups, urged officials to use the study as a way to make bus service more frequent, reliable and accessible.

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“Just as the region came together to approve dedicated funding for Metro, we must come together again to create a stronger bus system,” the groups said.

But there is no guarantee the analysis will bring better service. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at a Women’s Transportation Seminar luncheon last month that unlike the Houston and Baltimore studies, the Metro study looks at the sustainability of the Metrobus business model.

In his widely anticipated Metro overhaul analysis, former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood called for Metro to overhaul its bus routes and “offer service that matches actual demand,” meaning service reductions. He also called for a fare increase to $2.10 from $2.