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Transit


What are your ideas to make Metro greater?

Metro is your transit system. How could it be greater? Now's your chance to make suggestions for small changes that can improve your experience on rail, bus, or paratransit.

WMATA is hard at work on the big safety fixes we need to have a rail system that works safely and reliable. But while that's underway, there are many smaller things Metro can do to improve the rider experience during SafeTrack and beyond.

To achieve that, we are launching MetroGreater, a crowdsourcing idea site for you to submit your ideas and comment on others. A jury will review the ideas and the public will get to vote among the finalists to pick a winner.

WMATA has committed to implementing the winning idea (as long as it meets the criteria below). And who knows—they might decide to implement more than one! The winner will also get recognition and some Metro memorabilia.


A recent small-scale improvement WMATA implemented. Photo from WMATA.

If you could make one small, quick improvement to Metro, what would it be?

Maybe your idea would help a lot of riders like the stickers that show where the train will stop or green "8"s denoting eight-car trains. Maybe you really want Metro to increase bicycle storage at your station like they did at NoMa a few years ago.

Maybe you know of some bus stops that could use some "appropriate technology" to alleviate the burden of remaining upright (a.k.a. plastic chairs to sit on). Or have ideas to improve the complaint-ridden MetroAccess paratransit service for a better rider experience.

Ideas must:

  • Improve the transit experience for all or some group of riders;
  • Be achievable by Metro on its own in 6 months or less (ideally 3);
  • Cost no more than $100,000;
  • Not cost much to continue into the future;
  • Not impair safety;
  • Not negatively impact service or interfere with other agency responsibilities; and
  • Comply with all laws and regulations.

While slides instead of escalators in your station might be fun, it's not really practical or safe in the long term. Sorry. Image from Volkswagen.

So you have a great idea, what's next?

Submit your idea at metrogreater.org by Friday, July 15. You know how awesome your idea is, but make sure others do too. Upload photos or sketches to help others get it.

How does the rest of the contest work?

Submissions will be accepted through July 15, 2016. Then, a jury of regional experts and advocates will select 5-10 submissions that meet all necessary criteria as finalists. The public will then vote for a winner in August, and WMATA will get to work after that.

  • Submission period: Tuesday, June 21 - Friday, July 15, 2016 (at 11:59 pm)
  • Finalist selection by jury: by Friday, August 5, 2016
  • Public voting on finalists: Monday, August 8 - Friday, August 19, 2016
  • Winning idea announced: by Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Read more and submit your idea at metrogreater.org. What can you come up with?

Transit


Express trains wouldn't be of much help to Metro riders

Despite popular belief, having more tracks isn't necessary for proper maintenance of the Metro system. It also turns out that express tracks wouldn't provide much benefit to everyday riders, and it might even do more harm than good.


Photo by Phil King on Flickr.

This may seem a bit surprising to people familiar with express trains on the New York subway, where express tracks can cut a rider's trip by a third, or even a half. But New York's stops are spaced much more closely—an average of two to three per mile throughout the system—than Metro's. This means that a local train in New York spends much more of its time in stations than a Metro train, so there's a lot more time to be saved by skipping stops.

Here's how I simulated a system with express tracks:

With Metro, each mile travelled adds about 1.2 minutes to the trip, while each intermediate station adds about 1.1 minutes. I determined this by comparing the scheduled time to the distance between stations for each of the 93 pairs of adjacent stations in the system. From this data, I was able to model the travel time between all of the system's stations.

Along with a model for trip time, analyzing the possible benefits of express tracks requires a proposed set of local-only and express stations. To demonstrate the maximum benefit that could be achieved with express tracks, I considered a system with minimal express stops.

Along with transfer stations and the ends of lines, I chose nine of Metro's other high-ridership stations for expresses: Bethesda, Dupont Circle, Farragut North, Union Station, and Silver Spring on the Red Line; Foggy Bottom, Farragut West, and McPherson Square on the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines; Pentagon City on the Yellow and Blue lines, and Columbia Heights on the Green and Yellow lines.


Map from WMATA, with alterations to show potential express stations by the author.

Express tracks aren't that useful if you aren't coming from the edges of the system

To determine how much time could be saved, I compared the current travel time between pairs of stations to the travel times my model predicted for express trains. Since doing this analysis for each of the 8148 possible station pairs, I analyzed the 30 station pairs with the highest AM rush hour ridership, based on October 2014 data. These station pairs represent ten percent of the total AM rush hour ridership, and include trips from the six most heavily used end-of-line stations to the downtown stations where the most AM rush hour trips terminate, particularly Farragut North and West.

If Metro were to have express trains, the maximum time savings for trips to Farragut Square would be from Shady Grove and New Carrollton. In each case, an express train would save riders eleven minutes, about one-third of their current trips. From Glenmont, Vienna, and Wiehle, the time savings would be about eight minutes—one quarter of the current trips—is saved; and from Franconia-Springfield, the savings would be six minutes—less than a fifth of the current trip.

The time savings would be much less for riders traveling from closer in: riders between the thirty station pairs I considered would save an average of four-and-a-half minutes. Riders traveling to or from less-used stations would likely save no time, since their stations would be local-only and waiting to transfer to an express would consume their time savings.

In comparison, riders on the New York subway can save much more time by taking express trains. In Manhattan, the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line has 12 local-only and six express stops in the six miles from 96th Street to Chambers Street, while the IRT Lexington Avenue Line has 14 local-only and six express stops in the seven miles from 125th Street to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall.

Because of the close stop spacing, a local train on either line takes 30 minutes, for an average speed of 12 to 14 miles per hour, less than half of Metro's 30-mile-per-hour average speed. Express trains cut these trips by one-third to one-half, but they still only manage average speeds of around twenty miles per hour.

Having express tracks is one thing. Paying to run trains on them is another.

Even without express tracks, Metro's greater stop spacing allows Metro trains to maintain higher average speeds than New York subway express trains can manage in Manhattan. However, if the system had been built with express tracks throughout, it would still save riders some time, right?

Not necessarily. The usual explanation for why Metro couldn't have been built with express tracks is that doing so would have substantially increased construction costs, and significant amounts of the current system would have had to been cut to make up for this.

However, capital costs aren't the only issue: operating costs would need to be considered as well.

Maintaining current service frequency at local-only stops would mean that any express trains operated would have to be in addition to the service that operates today. During off-peak times, Metro's frequency—particularly on branches, where most local-only stops would be—is already minimal for a rapid-transit system.

Either the express tracks would be unused except during rush hour, or Metro would need a sizable increase in its operating budget, simply to operate the additional trains needed, without considering the additional rail car and track maintenance required. Given Metro's current struggles to obtain enough funding to operate the system we have, a system with express tracks would probably see significantly reduced frequencies at many stations.

The upside of the fact that running expresses often leads to a decreased frequency of locals is that a line with a pair of express tracks has twice the maximum capacity of a line with only local tracks. This is one reason that express tracks are beneficial on the New York subway, which has an annual ridership per mile of revenue track about three times that of Metro, even though most of its core lines, and many of its branch lines, have express tracks.

The fact that much of the system's ridership consists of north-south traffic on Manhattan, a narrow island with a limited number of possible north-south routes makes the New York subway a near-optimal situation for using express tracks to increase capacity. The London Underground, which has a similar total ridership and ridership and ridership per track mile to New York, but which operates in a more symmetric and much less geographically constrained city, achieves a high core capacity by having many double-tracked lines crisscrossing the urban core instead of a lower number of four-tracked lines with express tracks.

If we were to have more tracks, downtown would be the place for them

One section of the Metro system where express tracks could help solve capacity issues is the shared segment of the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory. The large number of commuters from Virginia who enter DC via the Rosslyn tunnel and the frequency reductions on branches needed in order to share one track-pair between three lines lead to severe congestion in this section of the system.

Express tracks here would eliminate the capacity issues that WMATA currently hopes to solve by building a separate Blue Line tunnel under M Street downtown. They would also shorten commute times for riders traveling to downtown from New Carrollton and Largo Town Center (though not from Virginia).

A four-track line between Rosslyn and Stadium-Armory—or elsewhere in the system—would also provide the benefit of providing a work-around when tracks have to be closed for maintenance or due to accidents. However, any argument for express tracks on Metro needs to depend on these benefits and increased capacity, rather than hopes of significantly faster service.

Transit


Maps of late night bus service are nice, but effective late night bus service would be even better

With Metro's weekend service now stopping at midnight, many will turn to buses for their late night transportation. PlanItMetro recent posted maps of all the bus service that's available in our region after midnight. They're a great step toward giving riders the information they need, but they also highlight some of the ways our night bus network falls short.


Our region's bus service between midnight and 1 am. Maps from WMATA.

There are three maps in all: One showing service from midnight to 1 am, one from 1 to 2 am, and one from 2 to 3. On top of Metrobus, the maps show routes offered by Arlington's ART, Montgomery County's Ride On, the DC Circulator, and the Fairfax Connector.

How thick a route is on the map indicates how long the wait between buses should be, with the thickest lines meaning the headway should be less than 20 minutes.


Service between 1 and 2 am.

PlanItMetro notes that the maps are missing some existing routes, like the Z8, which is a major line in Montgomery County; the maps should be updated soon. The maps also include some routes with such low frequency (once an hour or less) that it's debatable whether they're useful at all.

Most importantly, though, there's very little late night service after 1 am aside from what WMATA offers (other than some Fairfax Connector service), and most of that is designed to feed into or out of the Metro system—which isn't running past 12 anymore.


Service between 2 and 3 am.

Two of the most frequent routes between 2 and 3 AM (running every half hour) are the 16E and 82. However, the 16E is completely unconnected to DC, running only from Metro stations in Alexandria and Arlington west to Annandale. When the Metro is shut down, this route is a lot less useful—though at least it does connect with some other bus routes.

Even worse is the 82: it runs between Rhode Island Avenue Metro station and Mount Rainier, but without the Metro there is no way to reach this route via transit.

Compiling these routes is an important first step toward providing solid late night bus service, and it highlights where the network could get a lot better. Hopefully the maps can be improved, made more user-friendly, and placed on the WMATA website for riders to access them more easily.

And ideally, we can then start to take concrete steps to fill in the significant gaps in the area's night bus network.

Photography


Here are the answers to whichWMATA week 85

On Tuesday, we posted our eighty-fifth challenge to see how well you knew Metro. I took photos of five Metro stations. Here are the answers. How well did you do?

This week, we got 26 guesses. Fifteen got all five. Great work, Patrick, JamesDCane, Peter K, AlexC, J-Train-21, Jacob G, robwd21, Solomon, dpod, Justin...., Dillon the Pickle, Stephen C, Andy L, David Duck, and We Will Crush Peter K!


Image 1: Friendship Heights

The first image was taken from the Western Avenue mezzanine at Friendship Heights. There are several clues here that should have made this a fairly easy one to solve.

This is a four-coffer Arch I station, a type of station that is present only on the Red Line's Shady Grove branch between Woodley Park and Medical Center. That narrows it down to seven stations. Of those seven, only one station has mezzanines at both ends: Friendship Heights. However, Bethesda will soon have a second mezzanine, constructed as part of the Purple Line.

One additional clue is the globe lights on the platform pylons. Globe lights like these are typical at outdoor stations. But Friendship Heights is the only underground station that has them in quantities like this.

Twenty-three knew this one.


Image 2: Eisenhower Avenue

The next station featured was Eisenhower Avenue. The elevator shaft leading between the mezzanine and the Huntington platform is seen here from the station's bus loop.

The easiest way to figure out that this was Eisenhower Avenue was by noticing that this is a side platform station. There are very few of those in the system (most stations have the single platform between the tracks). Only Eisenhower Avenue is both elevated and has side platforms (West Hyattsville is built on a berm).

Cheverly would have been a close guess, since it's the twin of Eisenhower Avenue. However, at Cheverly, the mezzanine is above the tracks, which are built at ground level.

Nineteen guessed correctly.


Image 3: Silver Spring

The third station is Silver Spring. The view here is looking north from the platform, with the pocket track used to short turn trains at center left. The pocket track is the main clue here, since there are only a few in the system. The only outdoor pocket tracks near a station are at Silver Spring, Wiehle Avenue, and Franconia/Springfield, though the Franconia pocket is not visible from the platform.

Additional clues include the CSX track just to the right of the fence, which indicates that this is in the shared corridor where the Red Line is sandwiched between the eastbound and westbound CSX tracks. 8403 Colesville Road is also visible, and is a fairly distinctive building in the Silver Spring skyline.

Twenty-five got the gold by guessing Silver Spring.


Image 4: Suitland

The fourth image shows a view of Suitland station from the bridge leading to the parking garage.

From the image, you can tell that this is one of the four High Peak stations. You can narrow it down to Suitland because, as noted in week 57, the peaked skylights are very shallow here.

The vantage point also should help you narrow it down. Branch Avenue doesn't have a bridge or parking garage that would allow a view from this angle. And from this angle at Franconia, instead of seeing the bus loop, you'd see the CSX/VRE tracks.

However, at Southern Avenue, the bus loop includes a bridge over the tracks just beyond the end of the platform. Since that's not visible here, by process of elimination, this has to be Suitland.

Nineteen came to the correct conclusion.


Image 5: Columbia Heights

The final image shows artwork at Columbia Heights station. The piece, Woven Identities by Megan Welsh and Casa Del Pueblo Youth, hangs on the wall opposite the faregates, where the corridor branches to escalators leading to either side of 14th Street.

If you've ever shopped at the Columbia Heights Target, you've probably walked past this artwork, and hopefully it's brightened your day. If you took the time to notice it, it probably brightened your score this week.

Nineteen got it right.

Thanks for playing! We'll be back in two weeks with another quiz.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


Big parts of the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines are about to shut down for two weeks

Starting on Saturday and lasting through July 3rd, Metro is fully closing the tracks from the Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue stations to Eastern Market, along with those between Rosslyn and Arlington National Cemetery. This phase of SafeTrack is likely to be much harder on riders than the first, which wraps up today.


SafeTrack Surge 2 service reductions. Image from WMATA.

According to a Metro presentation on SafeTrack, almost 300,000 riders will feel the effects of the Surge 2 closures each day. That number includes both riders that use the segments of the Orange, Silver, or Blue Lines that will have no service as well as those who use the lines in places that will simply see fewer trains.

Blue Line trains from Franconia will only run as far as Arlington Cemetery, trains from Largo will only to Benning Road, and trains from New Carrollton will stop at Minnesota Avenue. The shutdown will effectively cut the the Blue Line in half. Instead of traveling through Rosslyn to get to DC, passengers will have to take the Yellow Line up through L'Enfant Plaza and transfer to another train for the rest of the trip.

Metro is offering up shuttle bus service between the affected stations that will run every 5-10 minutes depending on the location. The single bus shuttle between Rosslyn and Arlington Cemetery, however, will only run every 12 minutes, and only operate midday.

Metro will be increasing some bus service on some routes, including the T18 and the X9. Arlington is also upping buses on its ART 43 route, and around 40 buses will be running Metro's shuttle bus service during the shutdown. But a single train car holds 100 or more people, and many more people ride the trains than will be able to fit into the available buses.

WMATA's website has very thorough information about alternative transportation, including lists of all the bus routes that service each closed station as well as Rosslyn and those east of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue.


Metro's estimates on per-car crowding during Surge 2.

Metro officials have asked and continue to ask for riders on the affected lines to take alternate transportation if at all possible so that those for whom it is not can ride trains. The presentation slide above shows that if all Metro passengers took their normal routes, trains from McPherson Square to Metro Center would pack almost 200 people per car—Metro considers a car with 120 people to be crowded, and it's likely not physically possible to fit 195 (or even 147) people into a single rail car without massive effort.

During the disruptive 16-day Surge 2, passengers are recommended to stay calm and prepared. Carry a towel, in other words, and find the best way to travel that you can.

There are numerous rider tools that can be used to stay on top of the delays, and being informed will be critical to getting through this with your sanity in check.

Photography


Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 85

It's time for the eighty-fifth installment of our weekly "whichWMATA" series! Below are photos of five stations in the Metro system. Can you identify each from its picture?


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun. Please have your answers in by noon on Thursday.

Information about contest rules, submission guidelines, and a leaderboard is available at http://ggwash.org/whichwmata.

Transit


Let's learn from how Montreal does night bus service

With SafeTrack underway, Metro now closes at midnight every day—it used to stay open until 3 am on the weekend. With so many people needing a way to get around at night, it's as clear as ever that there's something missing from our region's transit services: effective late night bus service. Montreal has a model for how to pull it off.


A night bus in Montreal. Image from STM.

Montreal's Metro opened a decade before DC's Metro. Its operator, STM, also operates an extensive network of 220 daytime and 23 nighttime bus routes covering the Island of Montreal (population: nearly 2 million), serving almost 1.5 million riders on an average weekday.

There are, of course, some big differences:

  • The dense parts of the Island of Montreal are much denser than DC, and Montreal's residents are generally more inclined to take transit than those in our region.
  • The Montreal Metro is smaller than the DC Metro (about 3/4 as many stations and 1/3 as many track miles as the DC Metro), but runs more frequently and has nearly twice the average weekday ridership.
  • While there are plenty of jurisdictional areas in the Montreal area, STM is generally the only transit operator within the Island. That's certainly not the case in DC.
But Montreal's night bus service in particular can provide some pointers for how we could complement our rail network with great night bus service.

Montreal's current night network is relatively recent, the result of many incremental improvements like a slight retooling in 2011. These are the most important characteristics:

  • Service every night of the week, for all hours when the Metro is closed.
  • Even in the dead of night, buses are at most 45 minutes apart on all routes.
  • The routes are long, designed to require no transfers.
  • On an important central corridor with lots of bars and restaurants, headways are 15 minutes all night.
In Montreal, late night bus service isn't an afterthought

These routes aren't just a stopgap measure for some hours when the Metro is closed; they are designed to be an integral part of the transit system and provide meaningful, frequent service all night long. While at some hours headways lengthen to 30 or 45 minutes, the routes are designed to take people where they need to go without transfers.

Also, information about these routes is readily accessible; a map of the night bus network is freely available, and when riders look up the operating hours of Metro lines, they see very clearly that complementary night bus service operates at other hours:


Table from STM's Metro info page for the McGill station.

Taking the bus at night here requires too many transfers

By contrast, the DC area has no bus lines operating at all hours when Metro is closed. Those that do operate for some of the time after Metro closes often stop at jurisdictional lines, or are designed with the assumption that passengers will transfer to Metro lines that actually aren't running that late at night.

For example, going from Rockville to Friendship Heights is an easy trip when the Metro is running, but once the last train leaves Rockville at 11:30, the trip requires two (!) transfers on night buses.

Requiring transfers when there are long late-night headways severely limits how useful these buses are. Because of this, our region's night service generally isn't seen as an effective alternative to riding the Metro. This is why, for example, pizza restaurant Pete's announced that all area locations will now close at 10 PM on Friday and Saturday, since workers don't have reliable transit options for getting home after midnight.

WMATA has surveyed nighttime riders and learned that there is significant interest in improved service, and some potential changes came out in an April 2016 report. However, WMATA's proposed solution is overly complex and confusing to riders. It relies on riders' willingness to transfer buses late at night, and doesn't form a coherent network with consistent hours and headways.


Proposed Metrobus late night network from WMATA's 2016 study. Image from WMATA.

Montreal shows us that it doesn't have to be that way. As a first step, WMATA (in conjunction with other area transit operators) should compile all of the bus routes that operate after Metro closes. This would make unmet needs even clearer.

Next, WMATA should propose an incremental plan to create an effective, easy-to-use late night bus network modeled on the basic principles of the Montreal system: all-night service complementary to Metro, assurance of reasonable headways, and routes designed to minimize transfers. Of course funding is an issue, but the impact of SafeTrack on businesses, workers, and residents has reminded us that effective transit at all hours should be a priority for the region.

Transit


The DC Circulator isn't a waste of taxpayer money. In fact, some argue it's too cheap.

Is the DC Circulator, the District's red bus that plies central DC corridors (and a few other spots), a bad deal for taxpayers? Washington Post columnist Colbert King argues as much in a recent piece, but here's the thing: for a bus, the Circulator is actually cheap, and some of the other things people criticize are consequences of using the lowest bidder.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

King criticizes how DC's latest budget adds funding for Circulator capital needs and operating costs, which have grown as the Circulator system has grown. He writes:

From 2011 to 2016, the District has funded the D.C. Circulator Operating/Capital Budget to the tune of $152.9 million (2011, $16.7 million; 2012, $12.6 million; 2013, $14.5 million; 2014, $27.2 million; 2015, $33.1 million; and 2016, $48.7 million).

A recent audit of the Circulator fleet found examples of neglected maintenance, engine defects, windows that wouldn't open and other safety problems. So, the 2017 budget passed by the D.C. Council this week provides $34.5 million for Circulator buses and fleet rehabilitation.

The financial impact of the Circulator on D.C. wallets is a head-turner.

Is $48.7 million a lot or a little?

Can you name the operating cost of any other bus line? No? If not, do you have any idea if this number is high or low?

Too often, news stories and headlines present dollar figures for public works in a vacuum, devoid of context. To many people, 8-figure numbers just sound really high, whether or not they really are.

King also suggests that DC taxpayers are getting a bad deal because the District, rather than WMATA, owns the buses. But what he doesn't say in the column is that DC saves money by not using WMATA.

The cost DC pays for Circulator service in 2013 was $83.20 per "revenue hour" (each hour a bus is running when it can carry passengers) in 2011. Metrobus's cost per revenue hour in 2011 was somewhere between $93 and $142 per hour.1

This is a big reason why DC isn't the only jurisdiction to run its own buses alongside Metro's; just about all of them do.


Photos by Dan Malouff.

It's cheaper because the contractor is stingier

So why is WMATA more expensive? Some of the cost may be inefficiencies from a large bureaucracy, but there's also cost savings from stingier paychecks and skimpier benefits at First Transit, the contractor DC uses.

There's been a lot of criticism of labor practices and poverty wages there. Labor-aligned groups have argued that Circulator drivers made far below a living wage for the Washington region. And a damning audit found major problems with the buses' maintenance, as King points out in the excerpt above.

Drivers said First Transit was forcing them to take buses out with safety defects, a practice which is now prohibited in a new contract. The drivers also got a pay raise.

The company also recently came under fire for a policy against hiring ex-offenders. King mentions this as one criticism of the Circulator. (WMATA has some rules against hiring ex-offenders too, though I haven't seen a detailed comparison of the hiring rules between the various companies.)

This situation isn't just a coincidence. DC bid out operations for the Circulator, and paying less and cutting corners are some of the ways operators like this cut costs to get lower bids.

King criticizes First Transit for employing more Marylanders than DC residents. But if cost is such a major concern, it's worth considering that hiring more DC residents would certainly drive up the cost of the contract. This is an instance of public policy where we can't have it both ways—both lower costs and more DC hiring.

Yes, it would be better for more bus drivers to live in the jurisdictions where they drive, but to do that, DC will first need to add housing, including affordable housing, so more bus drivers can live in DC.

Expanding to more neighborhoods made the price go up

King also suggests that it's wrong for the Circulator to stay in DC's core (mostly). He writes, "most D.C. taxpayers, from Tenleytown, to Shepherd Park, to Woodridge, to Fort Lincoln, don't know" the District owns the buses.

At the same time, his list of annual Circulator costs makes it looks like the the price tripled. But that's at the same time DC expanded service to more areas. Some of those cost a lot more than the core lines. Here's a graph of the farebox recovery rate by line for March 2015-February 2015 (the latest 12 months where the Circulator dashboard has data):

By far, the two lines that recouped less of their costs were Union Station to Navy Yard and Potomac Avenue-Skyland. The latter was a largely political move to ensure the "Circulator" went east of the Anacostia. While neighborhoods east of the river deserve better bus service, the Circulator probably wasn't the right kind of bus service (Metrobus is).

That doesn't mean other neighborhoods shouldn't get better bus service. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie recently fought for a new express bus along Rhode Island Avenue, which is great for residents of that corridor. Good for him. He was also right to not ask for it to be called the Circulator. Not everyone needs their bus to have the same name. What they all need and deserve is good bus service.

Why is the fare only $1?

A more reasonable argument from the column is about the fare. The Circulator costs $1. Metrobus costs $1.75. King criticizes this disparity, and I agree that's not really fair. Why should neighborhoods with "Circulator" have a cheaper bus than neighborhoods with "Metrobus"?

Some lower-income people take the Circulator instead of a Metrobus because it's cheaper, even if it's not as convenient. It's not sensible to push people to take one bus over another in this way. Though raising the Circulator fare wouldn't help those folks, of course.

King also argues that tourists or more affluent people could afford to pay more. That's true, and in the past there have been proposals to raise the fare (and I even agreed with some of them). But making it a clean buck also makes it easier for people to have the right change, which is good for a bus that does attract some folks who don't have SmarTrips.

This is a discussion worth continuing. Unfortunately, King's ultimate recommendation is to move Circulator buses to other neighborhoods (bad from both a budget and planning perspective) or sell them off; he doesn't make a concrete proposal about the fare.


Image from the DC Circulator.

"There's no free ride"

The column relays a lot of other misconceptions, which I'll try to respond to in the future. But it's important to remember the maxim, "you get what you pay for." While government sometimes is very wasteful (as are private companies), doing things well also costs money and is worth supporting.

The headline on the article begins by saying, "There's no free ride." That's true. The region can debate (and in transportation circles, has debated) whether government should be spending more for better service and to better compensate bus drivers, who have a tough job.

Some come down on one side of that debate, some on the other. What this column does is simultaneously criticize the Circulator for what it doesn't do, and simultaneously, claim it's not financially worthwhile because of those gaps. That's just misleading.

1 The National Transit Database lists Metrobus's cost per revenue hour as $142. This includes things like transit police, which don't get charged for the Circulator but DC has to pay for elsewhere in its budget.

According to Jim Hamre of WMATA, the better figure is about $106 per hour, and incremental service costs only $93 per hour by piggybacking on fixed costs like bus garages that Metro's already spent. If a local government wants to "buy" bus service, Metro will change $116 per hour.

Transit


A bus between National Harbor, the MGM casino, and Alexandria? It could happen.

With Metro's help, Prince George's County and Alexandria are testing a bus route from National Harbor to a number of key commuting spots in Alexandria. The NH2 would link new Prince George's developments and would make it easier for workers and visitors to get across the Potomac.


Route and service details of the proposed NH2 bus from Virginia to National Harbor. Image from WMATA.

The route would run from National Harbor to the soon-to-open MGM Casino, then to the Oxon Hill Park and Ride and across the river to the Huntington and King Street Metro stations. It'd run every half hour between the above locations, from 6 am to 1 am daily.

If the WMATA board subcommittee that's considering the proposal approves it, the pilot would last from October 2016 to June 2017, after which WMATA staff would evaluate whether the route was worth keeping around. If they think the route is worth keeping, it would become a regular part of the Metrobus network. That could happen as soon as July 2017, at the start of Metro's FY2018 budget year.

The test is expected to cost around $2.175 million, which would be covered by bus fares, a mixture of money from Prince George's County, Maryland's Department of Transportation, the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, and $500,000 from National Harbor's developer, the Peterson Group.

A full year of service would cost closer to $2.9 million, which would be covered by the same pots of money as the pilot.

The proposal document up for review on Thursday says the jurisdictions expressed interest in creating the cross-Potomac service, which could ultimately bring more people (and their spending money) to both areas.

The NH1 is the only bus currently serving National Harbor, although several others have stops nearby. The route connects National Harbor to Southern Avenue Metro station (and then served Branch Avenue instead for a time before being restored following an outcry). Both would service the Oxon Hill Park and Ride.


Existing NH1 bus route to National Harbor from the Southern Avenue Metro station.

This pilot isn't the first time Metro has experimented with bus service connecting National Harbor to the region's transit network. Back in 2013, Metro proposed rerouting the NH1 line to run across the Woodrow Wilson bridge to Old Town Alexandria and serve the King Street station, as Matt' Johnson wrote back in 2013, somewhat similar to what's now being proposed. However, that proposal didn't move forward at the time.

However, the NH2 route is being proposed now with a large casino expected to draw in thousands to the area, which means the ridership numbers could be significantly different. The MGM development expected to open later in November will have two convention centers, the casino, a hotel, restaurants, and a 3,000-seat theater.

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