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Lack of coordination blunts Dulles bus improvements

When the Silver Line's first phase opens sometime this year, there will be three new or altered bus routes connecting its temporary terminus at Wiehle Avenue to Dulles Airport. While they all serve a similar purpose, they'll have different branding and uncoordinated schedules.

Graphic by the author.

Current service

Currently, the airport has a few bus options. Metrobus runs the 5A express from L'Enfant and Rosslyn to the airport. Fairfax Connector operates their 981 from the airport to Reston and Tysons Corner. And the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) runs the Washington Flyer express service between the airport and West Falls Church on the Orange Line.

Right now, each of these services serves a different market. The 5A connects airport workers and budget-minded travelers with downtown. The 981 serves to connect Fairfax County residents to other bus lines, Reston, and Tysons. The Washington Flyer is oriented more toward travelers, and gets them swiftly to the Orange Line for a steep $10.

But with the Silver Line's opening just a few months away, each of these operators is revising its plans. The first phase of the new line will end at Wiehle Avenue in Reston, just 6.5 miles short of the airport.

The new plan

Once the Silver Line is open, the Fairfax Connector 981 will operate only between the airport and Wiehle Avenue, making a few local stops in Reston. The fare will be $1.80. The 981 will come every 20 minutes Monday through Saturday, and every 40 minutes on Sundays.

The Washington Flyer will operate similarly. It will run between Dulles and Wiehle Avenue as an express, not making local stops. The fare will be $5.00 and must be paid with cash or credit only, since SmarTrip isn't accepted. The bus will run every 15 minutes during peak hours, and every 20 minutes at other times.

The 5A will be unchanged. It will continue to run between the airport and downtown DC, with stops at Herndon and Rosslyn. The fare will likely go up to $7.00 with Metro's proposed fare increase. The 5A will run every 30 to 40 minutes.


What this means is that a transit rider at Dulles has several options to get into the city. But the options will have separate branding, will use different stops at the airport, and will cost different amounts to ride. That's not efficient, and it's not particularly helpful to the user.

Potentially, up to 7 buses per hour will be leaving the airport headed toward Wiehle Avenue. That's a bus every 8.5 minutes!

This is the perfect example of a place where coordination is best for transit users. If Metrobus, Fairfax Connector, and MWAA pooled their resources, the agencies could easily offer a commonly-branded bus service connecting Dulles and Wiehle Avenue.

And an ideal service would take SmarTrip and offer transfer discounts to other bus services and Metrorail. Buses could even carry a unique paint scheme to brand them as an airport connection. MWAA is buying new buses to replace the coaches currently operated on the Flyer route, and this would have been a perfect opportunity to have a fleet of airport-oriented buses.

But the lack of coordination between these agencies means that a passenger waiting for a Fairfax Connector bus that takes SmarTrip may watch one or two Washington Flyer buses go by. That's frustrating to riders, and inefficient for agencies.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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My favorite part of this is that MWAA bought new buses, but isn't bothering to put SmarTrip readers in them. I fail to understand the reasoning behind that.

by Gray on Feb 6, 2014 11:55 am • linkreport

This post makes a very good point. Coordination between these agencies could easily allow 10 minute headways between the airport and the end of the silver line. I think a very good example to look at would be the 747 express bus line in Montreal, which runs 24/7 365 days a year, with frequencies of 10 mins during peak demand times. I believe the line is coordinated between the STM and Aeroports de Montreal.

by mileender on Feb 6, 2014 12:05 pm • linkreport

Gotta maximize profit, yo!

These MWAA officials must get really confused when (if) they fly into other countries airports. Like London, airports with subway lines, a bus stations, and even a train! station built into the airport property.

Confusing when you think of an airport built in the green fields around cars.
Not so confusing when you think of it as a transportation hub.

I always thought 9/11 should have closed National permanently and the northeast Acela line could be routed thru Dulles with a high speed train between Dulles and Union Station every 15 minutes.

by duncan on Feb 6, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

@Duncan That's why the new rail line from Denver--combined with the many other regional transportation improvements currently underway--to DIA is going to be fantastic. I'm particularly excited about the HOV/bus transit lane on RT 36 covering the entire span between Boulder and Denver.

by Hoya in CO on Feb 6, 2014 12:35 pm • linkreport

When people need to be on time for something (like a flight, or the Super Bowl), having infrequent last mile service is a great way to create lots of angry, dissatisfied customers who have just missed their flight.

MWAA should be able to see this.

Oakland Airport is spending $500 million to built a BART connector to fix this problem.

Dulles is the Oakland Airport of DC.

by Matt C on Feb 6, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

I'll be taking the Connector 981, thanks very much. Only if you were in a hurry would the Flyer really make sense/cents, but that itself could be replaced by a person who really wants to get all the way to L'Enfant, in which case the 5A is the best bet. If the person merely wants to get somewhere along the Orange line or Tysons, Flyer is/might be best bet.

by JDC on Feb 6, 2014 12:41 pm • linkreport

MWAA should be able to see this.

They're working on building Metro directly to the airport.

Oakland Airport is spending $500 million to built a BART connector to fix this problem.

The OAC isn't exactly an example of good transit spending priorities or quality airport connections.

Dulles is the Oakland Airport of DC.

Oakland is far less busy than IAD.

by Alex B. on Feb 6, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

Article makes total sense. They should coordinate the schedule and make the buses leave at regular intervals, whatever they are.

In fact, I'd say cancel the 5A and the Flyer, and let Fairfax Connector run a alternate buses that are local and express to Wiehle-Reston East.

by Jasper on Feb 6, 2014 12:54 pm • linkreport

To add to the confusion, the new Metro map only shows the "bus to airport" icons at Rosslyn and L'Enfant, despite the much more robust service at Wiehle.

by Aaron on Feb 6, 2014 12:56 pm • linkreport

@ Aaron - Metro's map only refers to Metro bus service, hence the 5A bus to airport symbol at L'Enfant and Rosslyn.

by JDC on Feb 6, 2014 1:04 pm • linkreport

Of course, we won't really be able to compare these options until the Silver Line fares are announced.

The lack of Smartrip on the Washington Flyer is unfortunate. The RAC recommended use of Smartrip on the Washington Flyer over a year ago. MWAA's contractor wouldn't even have to put it on the buses - they could have a single Smartrip reader at the airport or the Weihle Avenue station to collect fares at the point of entry or exit, which is basically how they collect fares now.

I just hope that MWAA will have the sense to co-locate these buses so consumers can easily see which options are immediately available. Today, the Washington Flyer and the 5A are located on different levels, making it hard to see which buses may be ready to go at that particular moment.

+1 on the comment that Dulles is the Oakland Airport of DC - annoyingly inaccessible in spite of itself.

by Ben on Feb 6, 2014 1:08 pm • linkreport

@JDC: Of course, because the important part is whether Metro provides the service, not whether service is available.

This is similar to the bus map that color-coded the routes based on which jurisdiction was providing the funding.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 6, 2014 1:20 pm • linkreport

In fact, I'd say cancel the 5A and the Flyer, and let Fairfax Connector run a alternate buses that are local and express to Wiehle-Reston East.

Canceling the 5A at this point will harm a lot of travelers/airport employees by increasing their price and time to the airport. Transfers eat time, until the silver line goes all the way to Dulles I am going to still use the 5A.

I wish they would coordinate and have some sort of 24 hour bus.(or nite bus) Those 6am flights out of Dulles are hard to get to on time.

by Richard on Feb 6, 2014 1:22 pm • linkreport

Hmm I guess I'm a bit torn. It is a question of market segmentation, information, trip purpose etc. If I was going to start from scratch, I'd do a local bus that serves Wiehle ending at Tysons, an express to Rosslyn and Farragut and another one that express to Pentagon City and L'enfant. The traditional operator would be WMATA because it cross multiple jurisdictions but I would guess that Fairfax is running their bus because it doesnt seem fair for locals to pay the same fee that people are paying from L'enfant for a shorter trip. So maybe the solution would be for all three to keep running their trips with some slight modifications (I'd run 5A through Pentagon City and skip Rosslyn and I'd run MWAA through Rosslyn to downtown DC for $7 as well) and wrap all of the buses so they are similarly branded and have them all serve the same stop at the bus stop at the airport and have unified signage which explains the fare differential. It would also provide much better service to NW DC that way and probably pick up a good chunk of ridership that takes cabs now.

by BTA on Feb 6, 2014 1:32 pm • linkreport

This ^^^^^

by xmal on Feb 6, 2014 1:40 pm • linkreport

@Alex B, my point is that MWAA is offering transit to what is naturally the premier airport in the region (because of its international and transcontinental connections) as if it were a budget airport like Oakland.

They don't seem to care if urban passengers all decamp to National (it's all MWAA after all) but the result of Dulles' lack of competitiveness is higher fares for passengers.

(If Oakland were better run, they would be running bus connector service with 5 minute headways at less cost than the incredibly expensive connector. Like MWAA, they seem to think 15 minute headways are acceptable at the last mile connection -- they are not.)

by Matt C on Feb 6, 2014 1:50 pm • linkreport

While your suggestions all make sense, I'm guessing the higher ups at all three transit agencies don't see optimizing these services as a priority, especially given that there will be another bus shakeup whenever Silver Line Phase II opens. Will any of these even continue to operate at that point?

by Hagiographer on Feb 6, 2014 1:58 pm • linkreport

They don't seem to care if urban passengers all decamp to National (it's all MWAA after all) but the result of Dulles' lack of competitiveness is higher fares for passengers.

You also implied that they're not doing anything about it, ignoring the Silver Line Phase 2, that will provide a direct connection to the airport.

I don't want to defend MWAA on the Washington Flyer, because as the article notes, the interim bus service (between the opening of Phase 1 and Phase 2) could be coordinated better. But I don't want to blame them too much, either.

You said "MWAA should be able to see this," and the very planning for Metro indicates that they do.

by Alex B. on Feb 6, 2014 1:59 pm • linkreport

They don't seem to care if urban passengers all decamp to National (it's all MWAA after all) but the result of Dulles' lack of competitiveness is higher fares for passengers.

Doesn't the lack of connectivity mean that fares at IAD are lower and DCA are higher.

by Richard on Feb 6, 2014 2:10 pm • linkreport

Yeah but Silver Line to Dulles is at least five years out. That's pretty long time line to just leave incoherent service patterns.

I've never found Dulles fares to be noticeably lower. BWI is sometimes lower though usually not enough so to make me travel that far.

by BTA on Feb 6, 2014 2:23 pm • linkreport

Agree with the comment from Ben.

It doesn't seem to matter so much about branding and coordination, if the airport would only put all three bus stops next to each other. An easy-to-read graphic would help riders (especially non-locals) understand where each one stopped.

by Rich 'n Alexandria on Feb 6, 2014 2:26 pm • linkreport

Seems like until the SIlver line run to Dulles, the 5a is going to (continue) to be the best option from DC to Dulles.

Given that until a few years ago it was the only money making bus line, and it pernially crowded, I'd be expanding service, not cutting it back.

What you really need a bus line from Bethesda to Dulles.

by charlie on Feb 6, 2014 2:28 pm • linkreport

I've never found Dulles fares to be noticeably lower. BWI is sometimes lower though usually not enough so to make me travel that far.

Maybe it is just me, but I always find equivalent flights $10-15 cheaper at IAD, but knowing it will take $10-15 and an hour or so extra. Similarly the DCA flights sell out faster than the IAD flights.

by Richard on Feb 6, 2014 2:43 pm • linkreport

The new Washington Flyer service is better than what I expected--50 percent more frequent service at a half the price is good! Simplifying the fare by dumping the round-trip discount (which I never use, because who knows if I'll come home at the right time to jump on the Flyer?) is also a pleasant surprise. Between the Flyer and the 981, I won't worry about the 5A anymore--nor will I miss wondering how much an outbound 5A's arrival at Rosslyn can lag behind even the NextBus prediction.

It's dumb for MWAA not to take SmarTrip, but at least $5 is a round number and a bill you have decent odds of already having in your wallet. And to me, not taking SmarTrip is nowhere near as foolish as WMATA not shifting the 5A's route to allow an easy transfer to/from the Silver Line at Wiehle.

BUT: MWAA needs to provide clear signage inside the airport for all of these services. It can't control scheduling or fares at WMATA or Fairfax Connector, but it can and should put up signs at the baggage-claim level indicating where you catch each bus.

by Rob Pegoraro on Feb 6, 2014 2:51 pm • linkreport

Please -- a direct bus from IAD-Downtown would be WONDERFUL. Why can they not add this, like every other city on the planet???????

by frequent flyer on Feb 6, 2014 3:03 pm • linkreport

The 5A already exists, you can take it today if you want to.

by drumz on Feb 6, 2014 3:23 pm • linkreport

@Richard -

DCA fares are inflated because of scarcity, so airlines are taking home more money. (The recent AA slot sale at DCA seemed to kick off a bidding war between JetBlue/Southwest/others.)

IAD fares may be lower because of greater supply/lower demand, but taxis capture a large share of the total cost an urban passenger pays.

by Matt C on Feb 6, 2014 3:42 pm • linkreport

In discussions with MWAA, they told DDOT that putting SmarTrip readers on the Washington Flyer buses would be too expensive.

In fairness to MWAA, given that the transition away from SmarTrip to the next generation of fare equipment has begun, accepting credit and debit cards, along with cash, is probably adequate.

by steve strauss on Feb 6, 2014 5:11 pm • linkreport

@ Richard and @ Matt C

I don't think you checked any sources. BWI is the cheapest in the region with an average domestic fare of $333. Reagan is in the middle at $377. Dulles is the most expensive at $505.


Dulles is the most expensive because of the significant construction on the airport a few years ago including their underground automated people mover and spiffy new concourse.

by Reuben on Feb 6, 2014 6:16 pm • linkreport

@Reuben, apples and oranges. BWI is a hub for cheapie carriers serving point to point routes. DCA has a lot of short haul commuter flights and is a defacto secondary hub for Delta and USAirways to feed their commuter flights from hubs, all of which create competition. IAD is a hub for a legacy carrier (United) and a lot of their domestic flights are to their other hubs like LAX or SFO. I regularly do flights to destination that's an hour or so away. The flight is usually cheapest at BWI which happens to have competition on that route, but I've also managed to get comparable fares at DCA (which I prefer) and IAD at times. When I recently took an international flight with a domestic leg, DCA was the consistent winner as I tracked the fare. The airports serve different niches and even with that, IAD is sometimes the bargain.

by Rich on Feb 6, 2014 9:33 pm • linkreport

@Rich, I agree with you about each airport fulfilling a niche and that sometimes IAD will have cheaper flights, but on average, BWI

by Reuben on Feb 6, 2014 10:07 pm • linkreport

"If Metrobus, Fairfax Connector, and MWAA pooled their resources, the agencies could easily offer a commonly-branded bus service connecting Dulles and Wiehle Avenue."

How does that help the situation when WMATA's Metrobus stops in L'Enfant Plaza, Rosslyn & Herdon and runs earlier than Metrorail ever will? The Metrobus route starts at 4:50 on Weekdays and 5:30 on Weekends the first Orange Line has not even left New Carrolton at those times.

Plus if you have a common bus between the Dulles and Wiehle Avenue what about the Rosslyn & L'Enfant Plaza portion of the 5A.

The 5A is fine as it is now and actually I would extend in up 7th Street to Gallery Place Station for the earlier runs up to about 8:30am on weekends and 7:30am on weekdays. As it is not easy to get to L'Enfant Plaza at 4 or 5 something in the morning or at 12:25-12:30am when the last bus gets to L'Enfant Plaza. At 5am none of the buses V7,8,9 or 74 run early in the morning and the only buses that run that early in the area are the 70, X2 both more than a mile away.

by kk on Feb 6, 2014 10:50 pm • linkreport

Given how scarce our transit resources are around here, I was hoping for the following:

1. WMATA run 5A buses early mornings and late nights when Metrorail is closed - 7 days a week.

2. Let MWAA --OR-- FFX Connector provide a connection between Dulles and Wiehle for Metrorail connections. I would even say if MWAA wants to provide this bus service let them. FFX Connector could use those buses and hours of service on other routes. I ride the packed and delayed 950 all the time. Add more buses to the 950 Connector route vs. the 981 and let MWAA provide the bus connection between IAD and Wiehle Ave.

3. I saw this presentation and was under the impression that at least some coordination was happening. This looks like a Power Point given at a meeting. Maybe the meeting had people from WMATA, FFX Connector and the airport. (see slide #15.)

by Transport. on Feb 7, 2014 12:25 am • linkreport

I will definitely take the Washington Flyer at $5 one-way running every 15-20 minutes to the temporary Silver Line terminus at Wiehle Avenue. I agree with the person who noted the move away from SmarTrip type cards to credit cards as now being planned for New York City. However, all three bus services should leave from the same location both at the airport and at Wiehle Avenue to make it convenient for travelers and coordinate their schedules to reduce wait times.

by Howard Marks on Feb 7, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

I've been a volunteer at Dulles for Travelers Aid, once or twice a week, for nearly 10 years. The 5A bus is extremely popular among arriving travelers - many of whom had identified it as the bus they wanted to take while still back home in Japan or other foreign country. At $6 (caution: must be exact change cash! SmartTrips not sold at Dulles) they can get all the way to Rosslyn and the blue/orange lines or the Mall, or to can catch the green or yellow Metro line and go even further, into Maryland. During rush hour I have often suggested the Flyer, as fastest way off the roads and into the Metro, even at $10, but usually they opt for the 5A. Lots of airport workers also rely on it (Originally the fare was only $3, I think as a mechanism for helping recruit more workers from DC). I personally hope it is not canceled.

by Donna Sandin on Feb 7, 2014 8:13 pm • linkreport

The Flyer bus apparently has a Dulles-employee discount; the few times I've taken it (now that I live in SW, obvs the 5A is much easier) it was mostly airport employees. I imagine this will continue to be the case.

@BTA: sounds like the LAWA FlyAway buses:

by Payton Chung on Feb 10, 2014 8:48 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this extremely informative article about transit service from Dulles International Airport to Herndon, Reston, the Silver Line, Roslyn, and DC, after the Silver Line opens later in 2014.

I would like to promote these links as ways that VRE and Amtrak riders could access Dulles. I had been searching for this information on the internet, and this website is the only place where I could find this information. WMATA and the Washington Post did not have the helpful detail in this posting. Keep up the good work!

by Dan Peacock on Feb 16, 2014 11:01 am • linkreport

Your article mentioned a problem that I have a solution worth considering.

Problem: The Washington Flyer, Fairfax Connector 481, and Metro Bus 5A all leave from different locations. Many travelers coming into Dulles could simply want to 1) take the first transit available or 2) be aware of the all options. The different locations for different services could be very frustrating for most new travelers.

Solution: Have Electronic Signs and frequent Loudspeaker Announcements at all service locations (Flyer, Connector, Metro 5A), providing the next service (including type of service, No, time, location) for the next hour, as follows:

Dulles Airport to Washington DC Transit Services
8:00 AM Wash Flyer (via Silver Line) Lower Level, Bay A
8:10 AM Metro 5A Bus (via Herndon), Bay B
8:10 AM Fairfax Conn (via Silver Line), Lower Level, Bay C
8:15 AM Wash Flyer (via Silver Line) Lower Level, Bay A
8:30 AM Fairfax Conn (via Silver Line), Lower Level, Bay C
8:30 AM Wash Flyer (via Silver Line) Lower Level, Bay A
8:40 AM Metro 5A Bus (via Herndon), Bay B
8:45 AM Wash Flyer (via Silver Line) Lower Level, Bay A
8:50 AM Fairfax Conn (via Silver Line), Lower Level, Bay C
9:00 AM Wash Flyer (via Silver Line) Lower Level, Bay A

by Dan Peacock on Feb 16, 2014 11:47 am • linkreport

Except MWAA has no incentive to do that; their incentive is to push you to their $5 bus service.

There has been bus service for years at Dulles, and MWAA hasn't done anything to make it easier to find because they want people taking the flyer or a cab.

by MLD on Feb 17, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

I believe that everyone who cares about the environment, saving energy, and giving travelers all the options for traveling between Dulles and DC can push the MWAA, Metro, VRE, Amtrak, Fairfax Co to advertise all the options more aggressively.

Knowing the options is the first step. The second step is getting the details about the schedules. The third step is promoting the options in an easy to understand format to the public, which can be done on websites, blogs, and youtube.

We are NOT powerless.

by Dan Peacock on Feb 17, 2014 3:11 pm • linkreport

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