The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Report from transit advocates calls for improved, coordinated bus service for D.C. region

The MetroNow coalition is calling for more bus lanes and increased planning between Metro and regional transit agencies

What had been a moment of optimism for public bus transit amid the coronavirus pandemic has morphed into another set of challenges.

Two months ago, President Biden signed an infrastructure bill that devotes $39 billion to public transit, much of it to expand and modernize bus systems. Despite a pandemic-induced ridership slump, transit agencies had been dreaming up ambitious service expansions and electric bus purchases when the omicron variant overwhelmed their workforces, exacerbating an industry-wide staffing shortage by sending waves of bus operators home sick.

Many transit leaders — including those at Metro — have been forced to cut routes and service since late December.

At the same time, transit agencies are increasingly expecting that many pre-pandemic commuters won’t return to transit because of increased telework. At Metro, that could mean staring at a more than $300 million hole from fare revenue losses starting in summer 2023.

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With transit agencies in flux, a new report this month is pushing for expanded and modernized regional bus transit service in the Washington region as a path forward. The report was created by a coalition of businesses, nonprofits and transportation advocates known as MetroNow.

The group, which includes leaders of the Northern Virginia and Prince George’s County chambers of commerce, Greater Washington Board of Trade, Tysons Partnership, Federal City Council, Greater Washington Partnership and Coalition for Smarter Growth, was assembled in 2018, campaigning successfully to help Metro receive annual, dedicated capital funding from Maryland, Virginia and the District.

The report recommends six priorities for regional transit and government leaders: Participating and contributing to Metro’s redesign of its bus network, building 10 miles of new bus lanes and finding a consistent way to enforce proper usage of them, creating strategies to recruit and retain bus operators, preparing the infrastructure and workforce for zero-emission buses, consolidating regional bus operations data, and finding a regional solution to the loss of transit fares.

Laura Miller Brooks, a co-leader of MetroNow who also works for the nonprofit Federal City Council, said the group released the report as part of an effort to get regional governments and transit agencies to collaborate on a regional bus system, create more bus lanes, hire more bus operators and expand service in underserved areas. Miller Brooks spoke to The Washington Post about the organization’s ideas for improving transit. The interview was lightly edited.

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Q: Why is MetroNow campaigning for better bus service, and why now?

A: Over the course of the pandemic and the last two years, bus operators at Metro and our local agencies kept our region open by providing essential transportation access for residents and it’s proof that bus is the lifeline of our region’s economy. We saw at the height of the pandemic, regional agencies such as Metro were experiencing 40 percent to 60 percent of pre-pandemic bus ridership, and that has since increased, whereas rail ridership through 2020 in the course of the pandemic was at 10 percent of pre-pandemic ridership. We have seen some encouraging spikes in rail ridership, getting us up to closer to 30 percent, but people relied on the bus.

Q: How can bus service expand at a time when ridership is down and there’s a shortage of bus operators?

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A: With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act we are seeing the opportunity for investment in dedicated bus lanes, automated enforcement on congested corridors, but also opportunities for electrifying our fleet and designing a network that really makes this a service that serves people and our customers better. It also provides the ability for new jobs and our ability to attract new talent.

But I think the other thing that we have to really be focused on is the fact that if we make all these great infrastructure investments, we can’t provide the quality or quantity of transformational bus service without prioritizing our bus drivers, and they’ve been out there every day of this pandemic providing essential transportation services. This is a job that, much like nursing, is so much more than knowing how to follow a route. It’s a challenging job.

Even before the pandemic, bus drivers were being recruited by delivery and trucking companies where they don’t have as much customer service responsibilities. They don’t have to face potential assault from angry riders. Locally, we need a strategy for recruitment and retention that’s developed in coordination and partnership with the transit unions.

Q: Where could the money come from to pay more bus operators?

A: We need the continued commitment from our elected officials on infrastructure — dedicated bus lanes and technology improvements that make buses faster, more reliable and reduce operating costs long-term so we can see the connection between advancements and increasing pay, increasing benefits. D.C. spent about $40 million of its annual bus subsidy on buses sitting in traffic, according to one model. So making the bus better on our roadways, prioritizing it on our roadways will free up more funding for prioritizing our bus drivers.

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Q: For years, the focus of Metro and government leaders in the region has been on Metrorail. Does the focus need to shift toward making bus as important, if not more important?

A: It’s more important than ever that we double down on the transformation of the bus to build a more efficient, effective and resilient transit system. The 7000-series crisis and the old model of Metro financially relying on peak or rush-hour commuter rail ridership fares for operating money really calls into question how much we’re looking at rail as the future of the region’s transit system versus bus.

I believe that the region has a plan and strategy and that we’ve really demonstrated that we’re ahead of a lot of other places. The District has actually used covid relief funding for improvements. Last year, Mayor [Muriel E.] Bowser committed to spending $63 million to build 50 miles of dedicated bus lanes in D.C. by 2027, and she used some American Recovery Plan Act money to cover capital funding for that.

We’ve got to focus in the right places and we’ve got talented transit agency staff to do this work, and we have new funding opportunities from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. But what we don’t have is really the mind-set of moving beyond crisis after crisis and centering the bus as part of our key regional strategy for what a post-covid transit system looks like.

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Whatever the various solutions are to ensuring a strong and healthy transit system, we know that bus has to be central in that conversation, and we know that serving people who rely on transit today is going to be critical to investing in the mobility and economic success for our future.

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