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Posts about Dulles


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.


Bus route changes could improve access to Dulles, BWI

Metro is considering significant changes to several Metrobus routes across the region, including the express buses they run to Dulles and BWI airports. The agency may even end bus service to Dulles altogether.

Photo by the author.

The 5A express runs from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles Airport, making two stops along the way. It was originally created to get workers from DC to jobs near the airport. But with the opening of the Silver Line early next year, there may be less demand for that service.

The B30 runs from Greenbelt Metro to BWI Airport, making no intermediate stops. Metro is proposing to run the bus more frequently and to add a stop along the way at Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, where the Maryland Live! casino has just opened. Before making any changes, WMATA will survey riders and take public comments on the altered routes, which could start running next year.

Dulles service could get shorter

Metrobus 5A currently runs every 30 to 40 minutes throughout the day. The trip from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles takes just under an hour. The bus starts at L'Enfant Plaza and makes stops at Rosslyn and the Herndon-Monroe Park & Ride on its way to Dulles. Though it was originally designed as a route to get workers to the airport, the 5A is fairly popular with airport travelers.

Map of proposed 5A route options from WMATA.

Airport travelers have a different option, the Washington Flyer, which runs non-stop between Dulles and West Falls Church. The Flyer leaves every 30 minutes, and trips to West Falls Church take about 25 minutes.

Within the next few years, Metro's new Silver Line will reach Dulles. But for now, the new line will only run as far as Wiehle Avenue, still 7 miles short of the airport, when it opens early next year.

Once the first phase of the Silver Line opens, the Washington Flyer will start running buses only as far as Wiehle Avenue, discontinuing service to West Falls Church. Additionally, once the Silver Line opens, Fairfax Connector will reroute the 981 so that it runs between Wiehle Avenue (instead of Tysons-Westpark) and Dulles. That route will continue to run via Reston Town Center and Herndon-Monroe Park & RIde, and will depart every 20 minutes.

For the moment, WMATA has not decided what to do about the 5A. They are considering several options.

One option is to discontinue all service on the 5A. With the new Silver Line and shuttle services from Fairfax Connector and Washington Flyer, the 5A won't be as important. Cutting the service will save the region money, which makes a lot of sense with the new options coming online.

Another option is to simply run the 5A between Wiehle Avenue and Dulles Airport. That duplicates the 981 and Washington Flyer services, but it would maintain the Metrobus brand as an option for getting to Dulles. A third option is to run the 5A only during times when a connection to Metrorail is not possible, like when the system is closed.

The final option is to keep the existing service. There may be some merit to this approach, since an express from Dulles Airport to Downtown Washington would likely be faster than the multiple-stop rail service. But it is somewhat incongruous with the rest of the system, where suburban buses typically feed into the rail system. The B30, for example, only runs to Greenbelt Station, not all the way downtown.

New local stops on BWI service

The Metrobus B30 runs nonstop from Greenbelt station to BWI Airport. This bus service has proven to be very popular, and some trips on the route can be very crowded. Currently, the bus runs every 40 minutes throughout the day.

Metro wants to shorten headways to 30 minutes during some periods, which should help alleviate crowding. The agency also wants to add a stop at Arundel Mills Mall, requiring a short detour from the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which the B30 uses to get to the airport. In addition to the large collection of retailers, Arundel Mills is now home to one of Maryland's new casinos, Maryland Live!

Map by the author.

There's no other Metrobus service in this area. Since the B30 gets so close, Metro hopes to tap into the demand for more service here. A stop at Arundel Mills would also provide connections to other transit providers which serve the mall, including MTA local and commuter bus service, Howard Transit, and Central Maryland Regional Transit. But the diversion would add about 10 minutes to the trip time between Greenbelt and BWI.

One other possible change is making the B30 more of a local service. Metro's proposed restructuring of the 87/88/89 line will eliminate bus service along Powder Mill Road in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. Since the B30 uses this road to get to the B-W Parkway, Metro may allow it to serve stops along this corridor.

These stops are very lightly used, so it probably won't add much time to trips. However, one effect of making local stops along Powder Mill is that the B30 won't be as flexible. If there's a crash on the Parkway, today supervisors can send the bus up I-95 instead. That won't be an option if this change happens.

Are "airport fares" fair for riders?

A few years ago, Metro introduced a new "airport fare" of $6 charged to riders on the 5A and B30. Compared to the $10 fare on the Washington Flyer, the 5A's $6 fare is a steal. The 5A will take you all the way downtown, whereas your $10 fare on the Flyer still leaves you with a $4.20 (rush hour) Metro fare to get to L'Enfant Plaza.

The B30, on the other hand, has always been less of a deal. The $6 fare only gets you to Greenbelt. From there, it's still $4.00 (rush hour) just to get to Gallery Place (less the transfer discount). Riders instead choosing to take the MARC train can get to Union Station for $6, though it does require taking a free shuttle from the terminal to the train station.

If the 5A is discontinued, riders will be on the hook for about $5.75 in Metro fare (the maximum fare) in addition to the $1.10 fare for Fairfax Connector (less the 50¢ transfer discount). That's a slight increase, but is still relatively cheap, given the distance Dulles is from the core.

With the B30 changes, though, the airport fare may make less sense. Passengers boarding along Powder Mill Road in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center today pay a fare of $1.60 to board a local Metrobus. If the B30 becomes their only bus service, their one-way fare will increase by 275%.

And riders bound for Arundel Mills or Maryland Live will also be stuck paying the airport fare, even though they aren't headed for the airport. On the other hand, though, the B30 is one of Metro's more far-flung routes, so a higher fare may be justified.

Adding a B30 stop at Arundel Mills seems like a good idea. It will give riders more regional transit connections and open up a major retail and entertainment area to transit users. Eliminating the 5A also makes a lot of sense, although it will likely be very controversial. In place of the 5A, Fairfax Connector is setting up a more frequent service to get riders to Dulles, which will mean shorter waits and less crowded buses.

The changes proposed for these routes will probably be positive for most riders. Soon, it will be easier to get to Dulles and BWI, and Arundel Mills will be much more accessible to Washingtonians.


Virginia can't manufacture demand at Dulles

If a shrinking number of people want to fly in and out of an airport, is the solution to spend a billion dollars to build a road there? Or is the better approach to build infrastructure where people do want to go?

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

The former doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but that's exactly what we're hearing from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and Virginia officials about the proposed Bi-County Parkway from Prince William County to the airport.

The Post explored the question in the July 14 Metro article "Could a Pr. William-Loudoun road revive Dulles?" The basic issue is that people seem more eager to fly in and out of Reagan National Airport than Dulles. Congress recently added exemptions to Reagan's perimeter rule that has allowed airlines to add more long-distance flights, helping to spur a 5 percent increase of passenger traffic last year. Meanwhile, Dulles saw 2 percent growth in international traffic, but domestic traffic dropped 8 percent.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.


DC repurposes lanes, Virginia adds them

DC, Maryland, and Virginia have proposed their latest series of changes to a regional transportation plan. It's amusing to look at the list: DC's new projects are all about reconfiguring roadways to be less like highways, while Virginia's are all about adding or widening highways.

Image from the Transportation Planning Board.

This is part of an annual process where the states and DC update lists of what projects they want to do in coming years. The regional Transportation Planning Board has to ensure that the lists, which form the Constrained Long-Range Plan, fit with expected local and federal revenue, and juggles assumptions until staff can at least claim that all the new roads won't make our air quality too bad.

DC is adding 6 new projects, to construct bus lanes on I Street, make New Jersey Avenue 2-way, add a bike trail, and reduce the number of general travel lanes on 4 streets. Those projects will cost about $20.5 million altogether.

The DC changes also include the median on Pennsylvania Avenue east of the river and 2 cycle tracks which have already happened but weren't in the TPB's plan yet.

Meanwhile, Virginia wants to widen 5 highways, build new ones through Manassas Battlefield and around Dulles Airport, and add highway ramps around Tysons Corner, for a total cost of $750 million to $1.4 billion depending on what they choose for Dulles. All of that money is for car capacity; there are no transit, pedestrian, or bicycle projects being added to Virginia's list this year.

Maryland isn't changing much this round; it's just moving some money from the Corridor Cities Transitway to the Purple Line.

Here is the list of new projects for the District of Columbia (not counting ones DC is adding which are already complete):

  • I St. NW from 13th St. NW to Pennsylvania Ave. NW: Add peak period bus-only lanes
  • New Jersey Ave. NW from H St. NW to N St. NW: Reconstruct from 4 lanes one-way to 2 lanes in each direction
  • 17th St. NE/SE from Benning Rd. NE to Potomac Ave. NE: Reduce from 2 lanes to 1 lane southbound
  • C St. NE from 16th St. NE to Oklahoma Ave. NE: Remove 1 of 2 travel lanes in each direction to calm traffic
  • East Capitol St. from 40th St. to Southern Ave.: Implement pedestrian safety and traffic operations improvements and remove 1 of 3 travel lanes in each direction
  • South Capitol St. from Firth Sterling Ave. SE to Southern Ave. SE: Design and construct a paved bicycle and pedestrian trail and reduce the number of lanes from 5 to 4
Here's the list for Virginia:
  • Widen I-395, Shirley Memorial Highway, Southbound from Duke St. to Edsall Rd.
  • Capital Beltway HOT Lanes: The segment of HOT Lanes between south of the George Washington Pkwy and
    south of Old Dominion Dr. was planned to be 2 lanes wide. VDOT proposes to make this segment 4 lanes wide.
  • Capital Beltway Ramps at Dulles Airport Access Highway and Dulles Toll Road: Construct a new ramp connecting the northbound general purpose lanes on I-495 to the inner lanes of westbound Dulles Airport Access Highway. Widen the ramp connecting eastbound Dulles Toll Road to the northbound general purpose lanes on I-495 from 1 to 2 lanes.
  • Widen US 1, Jefferson Davis Highway from Lorton Rd. to Annapolis Way from 4 to 6 lanes.
  • Widen VA 7, Leesburg Pike from I-495 to I-66 from 4 to 6 lanes.
  • Construct 2-lane collector-distributor roads parallel to Dulles Toll Road between VA 684, Spring Hill Rd. and VA 828, Wiehle Ave.
  • Dulles Toll Road Ramps in Tysons: Construct a ramp to and from the Dulles Toll Rd. to the new Boone Blvd. extension at Ashgrove Lane. Construct a ramp to and from the Dulles Toll Rd. to the new Greensboro Dr. extension at Tyco Rd.
  • Dulles Greenway Ramp: Construct a new egress ramp from the Dulles Greenway to the planned Hawling Farm Blvd.
  • "Improved access" to Dulles Airport: [4 alternatives, a no-build and 3 that involve new 4-lane limited access highways or widening US-50 and VA-606.]
  • VA 28 Manassas Bypass: Study a proposed 4 to 6 lane bypass through Prince William and Fairfax Counties.
And Maryland:
  • Change in project cost of the Corridor Cities Transitway from $1.2 billion to $828 million
  • Change in project cost of the Purple Line from $1.79 billion to $2.245 billion
These changes don't necessarily reflect the mix of projects in the plan overall, just the changes this year. For example, DC is soon going to spend hundreds of millions on a new South Capitol Bridge which will be wider than the old one, while there are major transit and bicycle and pedestrian projects in the plan for various parts of Northern Virginia.

Still, this gives something of a glimpse into what's on the minds of transportation planners in each jurisdiction right now. DC is spending some small dollars to reconstruct roads to better accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and buses; Viginia is spending big dollars on new road capacity.


DC, Fairfax consider cutting the 5A bus to Dulles

The WMATA Board will consider a package of changes to Metrobus routes at its meeting tomorrow. There are many small changes to routes, but one that could affect a large number of residents is a proposal from DC and Fairfax County to cut the 5A bus to Dulles.

Photo by greychr on Flickr.

The bus may become unnecessary once the Silver Line's Phase 2 goes all the way to the airport. In the meantime, Fairfax County has established a bus from Tysons Corner, in addition to the Washington Flyer bus to East West Falls Church.

There are a lot of other small bus route changes in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, especially east of the Anacostia and around Burke and East Falls Church. The NH1 National Harbor bus will get another reroute and will now go to King Street in Alexandria, while Prince George's County will add a The Bus route to Southern Avenue to accommodate National Harbor employees.

The 5A serves a variety of riders

The 5A connects L'Enfant Plaza, Rosslyn, and the airport with a $6 fare. It was able to operate very successfully with a mix of people going to the airport for air trips, employees at the airport, and commuters from Herndon and points west.

Image from NextBus.

The bus started out in 2000 with a grant from DC to provide reverse commute service from the District to Tysons and the Dulles corridor. It originally had 2 variants: the 5A went from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles Airport, and the 5B ended at the Herndon-Monroe Park and Ride. In 2006, WMATA merged the two.

Once the grant expired, the various jurisdictions agreed to keep funding the 5A separate from the regular funding formula, which didn't really fit the 5A. Fairfax created its Tysons-Dulles bus, and officials in that county and at the District Department of Transportation are now considering whether the two jurisdictions can eliminate their funding for the 5A.

The 5A and Washington Flyer make an imperfect pair

Even at $6, the 5A is cheaper than the Washington Flyer and rail ($10 for the Flyer plus the rail fare). A report on airport bus service from the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council (RAC) notes that many people ride the 5A from the Herndon Park and Ride, likely using the bus as an alternative to more expensive commuter buses.

The RAC report says that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has never cooperated with WMATA much about the 5A:

The original 5A stop was located far from the terminal building and marked with a black and white sign that did not conform to WMATA signage standards, making it confusing to regular system riders. (MWAA originally argued that WMATA signage did not conform to the airport's color scheme.) The stop was eventually
moved in closer to the arrivals area and standard WMATA signage was permitted.

WMATA officials note, however, that barriers to use of the 5A remain in place at Dulles: WMATA is still unable to post signs within the airport itself directing passengers to the 5A; official airport announcements in the arrivals area tell customers that the Washington Flyer and MWAA-sponsored taxis are the only forms of airport transportation endorsed and authorized by the airport authority; airport employees do not currently receive Smartbenefits from MWAA which could potentially be used on the 5A; and there is no place to purchase a Smartrip card within the terminal.

Having two separate buses, each running at infrequent headways (30 minutes for the Flyer, 40-60 for the 5A) indeed seems inefficient. Perhaps better coordination between WMATA, area jurisdictions, and MWAA could allow a more frequent bus for the years until the Silver Line reaches Dulles Airport.

What can happen with the 5A?

Options besides cutting the 5A, WMATA bus planner Jim Hamre told the RAC last winter, include keeping it with a new stop at Wiehle, or turning it into a shuttle just between the airport and Wiehle (in other words, a WMATA version of the Washington Flyer).

According to the RAC report, the Flyer still loses money. It once traveled all the way to downtown DC, but private operators refused to bid on such an expensive service. The current contract will end next year. Rather than treating the Flyer as a concession contract, It seems it might be better to have WMATA or another area transit operator run the "Flyer" as a public bus (perhaps even numbered 5A).

Do you think DC and Fairfax should stop funding the 5A? What airport transit should exist once the Silver Line opens, but before it gets to the airport? What about after?

The WMATA Board's action tomorrow would just put these changes out for public hearings in September. The board would then vote on a final set of changes in the fall to take effect between December 2013 and June 2014.


Should DCA's role in the region change?

US Airways is merging with American Airlines, and will then control most of DCA airport's flights. Should it have to give up slots? What will that mean for small communities? Moreover, should DCA grow? How?

Photo by Adam Fagen on Flickr.

Last week, US Airways CEO Doug Parker testified before Congress about his pending merger with American. US Airways already is the dominant airline at DCA, and combined with American, will control 68% of the slots and 49% of passenger traffic.

Beyond the questions about what's good for airfares and the aviation industry, what happens at DCA has a big effect on our region. The airport is far easier to reach from most central urban and suburban neighborhoods, where more and more people are living. If the region is growing in the core, should air travel grow there as well? How?

Everyone wants slots

DCA is one of only a few airports in the nation where regulations limit the number of flights. Carriers own "slots" which give them rights to one takeoff or landing per day. There are also limits on how many flights can operate in each hour.

These slots are extremely valuable, since many people will pay more to fly from convenient DCA instead of more distant (for most people) Dulles or BWI. JetBlue recently paid $40 million for slots to run 8 daily round trips.

Furthermore, DCA has a perimeter rule limiting most flights to cities no more than 1,250 miles away (far enough to get to Dallas but not Austin). There are a limited number of exceptions, including some Congress added last year, which gave us new flights from DCA to San Francisco, Portland, San Diego, Austin, and San Juan, as well as more flights to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, which already had exemptions.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Justice could require the combined airline to give up some DCA slots as part of a merger. United and Continental had to do this at Newark, for instance. However, US Airways currently uses many of its slots to fly to small cities around the East Coast. When JetBlue bought those 8 round trips, it didn't do that; it added flights to Boston and Florida.

CEO Doug Parker, therefore, has been arguing that if his airline has to divest slots, other airlines will simply use them to fly to big cities that already have a lot of service. That will likely lower fares to those cities, but remove options to other cities. Some members of Congress sent a letter asking for US Airways/American to keep its slots so that their small communities can keep their flights.

What is the role of DCA?

This debate raises several important questions about how DCA fits into the region. It's the most convenient airport for the greatest number of residents, while Dulles and BWI take longer to reach. Therefore, there's some logic to the idea that short flights should leave from DCA, while the trek to a farther airport isn't such a burden if the flight itself is longer as well.

Also, being most convenient, perhaps it makes sense to prioritize coverage over price. Price-sensitive flyers can go to BWI, where Southwest has a huge operation, and where other airlines' fares are also generally lower.

Still, as the region grows in the core, it makes sense to think about how DCA could grow as well. Passenger traffic has grown 5.5%, while Dulles lost 6.4% of its traffic. Some of that is the rest of the new beyond-perimeter flights. Clearly, more people would rather fly from DCA. When the Silver Line opens, it might shift some more passengers to Dulles.

DCA has many limits on its size. With only one long-ish runway, it can't handle large numbers of planes at once. Nothing is going to change that. It also has a legal cap on the number of gates, as well as the slot restrictions. Some of that placates Arlington, which has to cope with the noise from planes. On the other hand, those restrictions came about at a time that planes were much noisier than they are today.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been primarily investing in Dulles Airport, with the newish AeroTrain, the Silver Line, and roadway projects. Ever since Dulles opened and the DCA perimeter went into effect, there's been a general policy of trying to shift traffic there.

Make DCA bigger?

Should the region still try to build up Dulles and BWI and keep a lid on DCA? Just as letting the region's core grow is more economically efficient and better for mobility, so is helping more people use the central airport. More planes can't easily fly in and out of DCA, but they could be larger planes, if MWAA wanted to, and legally could, invest in more gates and more security screening capacity.

One slot can go to a plane of any size that fits at DCA, but many US Airways flights are on small regional jets which flyers reach by shuttle bus. That's why the combined airline would only have half the airport's passengers but 2/3 of the flights. With enough gate space, larger planes could use those slots and carry more people.

However, larger planes have to go to larger cities. US Airways flies so many small planes now because they match the level of demand. There's particularly strong demand beyond the perimeter, and if the rule didn't exist many more flights would be going to the west, but the rule is there to keep that demand at Dulles and BWI instead.

Which brings us back to the same central question: should DCA be a sort of niche airport with smaller planes to many little destinations, or an airport that tries to serve as much of the travel demand, close in to the center of the region, as possible? There's no obvious answer.


Watch 28 years of Virginia sprawl

Google's global 1984-2012 satellite timelapse shows remarkable growth in Northern Virginia. Take a look.

Image from Google.

The most striking change is vast land development in Loudoun County, but that's not the only visible growth. You can also see expansion of Tysons Corner (lower right), construction of the Dulles Greenway toll road, the airport's new western runway, and at the very end, construction of the Beltway HOT lanes.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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