County Board Approves New Transit Plan, With an Asterisk

16G Metrobus (photo courtesy WMATA)The Arlington County Board on Saturday approved a new 10-year transit plan that provides a vision for “more frequent bus service, more late night and weekend service, better north-south connections, and a new Premium Transit Network along Columbia Pike.”

There’s an asterisk to the Transit Development Plan’s unanimous approval and the subsequent cheery press release, however. Responding to criticism from residents and the county’s own Transportation Commission, the Board directed County Manager Mark Schwartz to report back next year on possible improvements to the post-streetcar transit plan for Columbia Pike.

The Board’s guidance to Schwartz and county staff:

This generally ambitious and robust Transit Development Plan nevertheless falls short of the urgency and innovation needed to create a transformative transit network serving Columbia Pike and to realize its potential as a thriving and dynamic residential and commercial corridor.

Therefore, in adopting the FY 2017 -FY 2026 Transit Development Plan, the County Board also gives the following guidance to the County Manager and staff:

Look and Customization of Vehicles. The current TDP phases in the most modern version of current vehicles, WMATA buses and ART buses, with no unique features beyond re-skinning the buses on WMATA routes. Recognizing the significant logistical, cost and inter-jurisdictional challenges, please provide to the Board for consideration and analysis, during Q2 2017, the details of a possible path to customized and unique vehicles.

Articulated Buses. In consultation with WMATA, provide a plan by Q2 2017 to add articulated buses to the highest-demand routes on Columbia Pike (on either a pilot or permanent basis). Continue to assess effectiveness of articulated bus service and determine sustained levels of service for these routes through FY2026.

Headways. The current TDP identifies 6-minute peak headways and 12-15 minute off-peak headways for the Metrobus Connector “trunk line.” Please provide to the Board, by Q2 2017, a cost/benefit analysis (to consider efficiency, capacity, ridership impacts) of reducing the off-peak headways and ultimately achieving a 6-minute headway for 18 hours/day.

Coordination with Other Agencies. To effectuate this guidance, the County Manager and staff will coordinate as appropriate and necessary with WMATA and other federal, state, regional and local government agencies and transportation bodies.

Most of the public comments at Saturday’s Board meeting were complimentary of the overall plan, save the plan for the so-called Premium Transit Network. That plan seemed in many ways diminished from the “TSM-2” enhanced bus plan the county and supporters originally said was inferior to its since-cancelled streetcar plan for Columbia Pike.

Among the public speakers at the Board meeting was John Snyder, member of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization and a former streetcar booster. Snyder said the plan for Pike transit presented by county staff was inadequate to support growth along the corridor.

We had a debate for several years [about] TSM-2… and the streetcar. TSM-2 won the debate. Now, when I look at the plan, what is written in the plan has disappeared. The whole idea of premium new vehicles that have higher capacity: it’s gone. This wasn’t announced and it wasn’t part of a public process. We found out about it by looking at the Capital Improvement Plan. There’s no money to buy new buses. There’s still money in the plan for the transit stations if they’re maintained at the current level but the buses have disappeared. There’s great things in the Transit Development Plan, what’s in there is great and the consensus is that the county board supports all of it. But the concern is what’s not in there. We don’t see anything that’s going to help businesses with more frequent service on the off-hours. People go out to dinner not during the commuting hour, they go out to dinner after that time and they come back after that time. The idea of six-minute intervals all the time makes it reliable, frequent, easy and simple to use. We have the simplicity, the new 16M line is great in the way that it simplifies many of these different routes but it needs to have that frequency to help our businesses and connect our residents to that so we get out of the car mentality. Seventy percent of the people on the Pike do not use transit even to get to work. The percentage on other sorts of trips is even higher. We need to change that. That’s the whole idea behind the Pike plan and it has been supported by the Board for the last 15 years.

There is no plan to increase capacity. We understand that you’re going to be coordinating with WMATA on how we can get articulated buses. I heard the same thing in 2003 at the first meeting I attended regarding transit on the Pike. WMATA has a lot on its plate. What we need in that regard is a statement that says Arlington will. Arlington will go do this, we will go get the additional buses, we will get the additional facilities needed to maintain them and we’re going to do that by a particular date.

Some were more charitable about the plan as currently conceived.

“These critics failed to appreciate that no amount of service upgrades will defeat car culture,” said perennial County Board candidate Audrey Clement, who’s running as an independent this year. “If state of the art transit technology were the solution, the Silver Line would not be running half-empty in the I-66 median with cars parked on the interstate on either side every day.”

Dennis Leach, Arlington’s Deputy Director of Transportation, said the enhanced transit stations and other amenities included in the Premium Transit Network plan will, in fact, move the needle in terms of making transit a more attractive option along the Pike.

“The premium amenities are proving those high-quality stations with near-level boarding, longer platforms and real-time information,” he said. “These stations are the front door of transit in the corridor. It is shifting this entire corridor to off-vehicle fare collection. We’ve already started work on transit signal priority and we are committed to actually implementing it in the full corridor.”

“We are actively coordinating with Metro to replace the current buses with modern low floor vehicles,” Leach added. “The intent is to implement a unified brand for this premium transit network.”

“I would say this was the most intensive and comprehensive transit update that the county has ever done,” Leach said of the overall transit plan. “I was here for 2011, this effort well exceeded that. We looked at every route and every part of this community to bring these recommendations before you.”

The full press release from Arlington County, after the jump.

More frequent bus service, more late night and weekend service, better north-south connections, and a new Premium Transit Network along Columbia Pike  – this is the new vision for bus service in Arlington. On Saturday the County Board, unanimously adopted a new Transit Development Plan that provides a road map for Arlington Transit and Metrobus service improvements through 2026.

“This plan demonstrates Arlington’s continued commitment to excellent transit service that makes it easier for people to move around the County without a car,” said County Board Chair Libby Garvey. “It includes a plan for improving bus service along Columbia Pike and the Crystal City-Pentagon City corridor that will offer fast, frequent, reliable and easy-to-use bus service. Riders should see much improved service along these important corridors by 2018. We are also planning ahead to make sure we have the capacity to handle anticipated increased ridership along the Pike in the future.”

The Commonwealth of Virginia mandates that every transit operator in the Commonwealth have a Transit Development Plan (TDP). The plan must be updated annually and comprehensively revised every six years. The plan identifies transit needs in the County, as well as modifications to the system that will increase productivity or improve efficiency, and identifies the resources required for improving service. The plan makes County projects and services eligible for State funding, one of the County’s main funding sources for transit.

Responding to community concerns that service improvements may not support the Columbia Pike corridor’s growth and revitalization, the County Board also directed the County Manager to explore improvements to the Premium Transit Network such as customized bus vehicles, larger articulated buses and more frequent off-peak service that could encourage more people to use transit.

By summer 2020 the County plans to make the following improvements to bus service:

  • A new north-south connection between Rosslyn and Shirlington
  • More frequent service from Dunn Loring to Ballston, via Arlington Boulevard
  • More frequent service along Glebe Road
  • A new connection between Crystal City, National Airport and Shirlington
  • A new connection between Buckingham and the County’s Department of Human Services facility at Sequoia

The new TDP also includes innovative on-demand services to maintain connections in neighborhoods where bus ridership is low and demand does not warrant fixed route service. To be fiscally responsible, the plan calls for converting some Metrobus routes to lower cost Arlington Transit (ART) service and consolidating or shortening some bus routes.

Route-by-route details are available on the County website.

The new services proposed in the TDP are dependent on resources appropriated through the County’s annual operating budget. For ART, the proposed services are estimated to cost an additional $10.6 million annually by fiscal year (FY) 2026. These additional operating costs are expected to be covered by additional fare revenue and state aid and savings from converting two Metrobus lines to lower-cost ART service. New Metrobus service called for in the TDP would cost an additional $7 million annually by FY 2026, which would be funded by County general funds, state aid and regional gas tax revenues. The TDP will be updated on an annual basis to reflect current needs and available resources.

Premium bus service planned for Columbia Pike, Pentagon City and Crystal City

A major feature of the plan is creation of a Premium Transit Network connecting Columbia Pike, Pentagon City and Crystal City. The premium network will offer bus service that is fast, frequent, reliable and easy to use, with features including simplified routes, increased weekday and weekend service, and a new one-seat bus ride from Skyline to Pentagon City-Crystal City.

In addition to new service, the Premium Transit Network includes new transit stations along Columbia Pike that will provide near-level boarding, longer platforms, real-time bus arrival information and off-vehicle fare collection. The premium service is planned to start in summer 2018, with transit stations and other amenities implemented in phases through 2021.

The premium network is designed to accommodate projected demand along Columbia Pike during the next six to ten years. As the corridor develops and more riders are attracted to the service, larger vehicles can be used to add capacity and meet the growing demand.

Community helped shape the plan

To develop the 10-year plan, the County surveyed Arlington residents about how they currently use transit and where they want to see improvements. More than 1,000 persons responded with comments on the draft recommendations, presented to the community in February. The feedback included strong support for additional off-peak and weekend service and new direct connections to activity centers. These comments and suggestions, along with extensive technical analysis of the County’s current bus service, helped shape the final TDP.

Community input timeline:

  • Spring 2015: Surveyed 3,396 people to get input on transit usage and needs, helping County staff to analyze existing system and service area.
  • Fall 2015: Hosted 406 people in four workshops and five focus groups; also hosted online input form, providing input on initial findings of technical analysis. With the input, staff prepared draft recommendations.
  • Winter 2016: More than 1,000 people participated in six workshops and via an online form, to provide input on the draft recommendations.

Next steps

This month, in addition to adopting the new TDP, the County Board will adopt a new Capital Improvement Plan that includes projects such as a heavy maintenance facility, new bus vehicles and transit system technologies needed to implement the bus service improvements.

Specific bus route changes will involve more public input before implementation.

Adrian Cruz contributed additional reporting for this article