Will the Metroway remain a good investment after the pandemic?

A Metroway bus at the Transitway bus stop at 27th Street S. and Crystal Drive (staff photo by Matt Blitz

Many are predicting that the pandemic will drastically affect how we commute and use public transportation for the foreseeable future.

How that will impact long-term transportation projects, like the Metroway bus rapid transit line and the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway extension to Pentagon City, is a puzzle that local officials are trying to put together.

In 2021, according to Metro’s data, bus ridership overall is down by close to two thirds from 2019. And those numbers may not increase a whole lot for at least a couple of years.

“It really is something that we all are literally struggling with to understand,” Arlington County’s Transit Bureau Chief Lynn Rivers told ARLnow. The transit bureau was responsible for building out the initial Transitway infrastructure, as well as the forthcoming Pentagon City extension. “Now… we’re talking 2023 when we’re going to start seeing the same levels [of bus riderships] that we had before.”

Even as more people head back to the office and lockdowns are no longer in effect, traffic patterns have shifted particularly on the roads. There’s now less traffic in the mornings, allowing cars and buses to get to their destination quicker.

“People are changing their patterns and how they are using the service,” Rivers said. “The huge rush hours in the morning and in the afternoon, we may not see that.”

Instead of seeing huge jumps in use during peak times — 6-9 a.m. in the morning and 3-7 p.m. in the evening — Rivers said there may be a leveling-out of how commuters use train and bus transit.

“Throughout the day, there will be constant movement,” she said.

This shift could be at least somewhat permanent and largely due to still a large number of folks continuing to work from home. Those that are going to the office, meanwhile, are spending fewer hours there.

(Nearly half of readers who responded to a ARLnow morning poll in October said they were still working from home.)

In response, and to encourage more people to use the bus system, Metro increased the frequency of the Metroway back in Sep last month (as well as other bus lines). It now runs every 12 minutes on weekdays and 20 minutes on weekends from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., in a bid to encourage ridership.

This shift in commuting patterns comes just as the county unveiled design plans last months for Pentagon City extension of the Transitway. While it comes with a price tag of nearly $28 million, most of the cost will be financed by the state and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. Arlington is contributing about $1.8 million to the project, according to county officials.

Nonetheless, that’s still a significant use of tax dollars at a time when commuting is down and there are plenty of competing priorities. When the rapid bus transit system in Arlington was first conceived more than a decade ago, an airborne illness was not infecting millions across the globe.

With the knowledge that Covid spreads more easily in indoor settings, there could be hesitation among some commuters to be in crowded spaces with strangers despite relatively high local vaccination rates.

“Are we really going to cram back on a bus?” Chris Slatt, Arlington Transportation Commission chair and founder of Sustainable Mobility for Arlington County, asks rhetorically. “Are we going to want to be crowded into a Metro train as we were two or three years ago?”

John Vihstadt, former County Board member who vehemently opposed the Columbia Pike streetcar project, which he helped to scuttle, agrees that shifting commuter behaviors could make the Transitway not as a sound an investment as it once appeared.

While an avid public transit user himself and, generally, in favor of bus rapid transit — opponents of the streetcar argued that BRT along the Pike was a cost-effective alternative to a light rail system — Vihstadt thinks the county needs to do more modeling and forecasting of people’s commuting patterns before moving ahead with the build out.

“We can’t stick our heads in the sand and just expect that everything is going to ultimately return to the status quo,” he tells ARLnow.

These doubts are not exactly what officials want to hear after investing tens of millions into bus infrastructure with still nearly $30 million more to come.

However, they are convinced that a rapid bus system still has tremendous value for our region. Increasing frequency to decrease crowding and changing schedules to accommodate commuter patterns are easy fixes with a bus system, as opposed to a train.

“Solutions on the Metroway and [bus rapid transit] are actually some of the quicker ones to implement, more cost effective and more flexible than some others,” says Stacy Cook, a principal transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. “I actually think [a rapid bus system] is really a robust solution as we look to be able to move people quickly where they need to go in a safe way.”

Slatt agrees, saying that having more frequent buses spread out throughout the day could encourage more people to ditch that extra car or to not drive as much. This is good for traffic, environment, and equity, he says. (There’s research that says a robust, easy-to-use public transportation system improves health equity and improves access for all to many necessary services.)

Over the last decade, Arlington County has grown in population by nearly 15%, doubling the overall rate of population growth both in Virginia and the country as a whole. While the last 18 months have posed questions about and challenges to the Transitway and the Metroway line, it’s an investment that officials and advocates are confident about in a post-pandemic world.

“Ultimately, there’s still going to be a lot of people that have a lot of places they want to go. And I don’t think we’re going to see our region empty out,” said Cook. “I think a lot of the planning we’ve done and will continue to do will be important going forward.”

Vihstadt hasn’t been shy in the past about expressing his displeasure in regards to other big-ticket projects in the county. But he admits that he’s having a bit of an internal debate about Metroway and the forthcoming extension.

Considering the increasing density of Pentagon City and Crystal City, and the continued growth of Amazon’s HQ2, he understands the need for a rapid bus system may only increase. But is the pandemic permanently changing everything we thought we knew about working and commuting?

“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg,” he says. “Do you pause the project until you know [that] if you build it, they will come? Or not? It’s that whole kind of quandary.”

This is the final of a four article series on the bus rapid transit system in Crystal City. This in-depth look at important transit infrastructure investment was funded by the members of the ARLnow Press Club.