Arlington, VA

Within the next decade, a new transit group wants to make the bus the go-to transit option in the D.C. area

Earlier this year, the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project — which is backed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — released a draft strategic plan with a variety of short and long-term goals and strategies for improving the D.C. region’s bus network.

“The national capital region is adding 40,000-60,000 jobs and households each year,” the group said in its strategic plan. “But its transportation system is struggling to keep pace, leading to some of the longest commutes and worst traffic congestion in the nation.”

Potential ways to improve D.C. area buses and thus help alleviate traffic issues were broken into six categories, ranging in complexity and potential cost.

  • Ease of use: make simpler, consistent maps, naming conventions, and pricing. Another recommendation would be free transfers between Metrorail service and local bus lines.
  • Prioritizing buses on roads: potentially with bus-only lanes and traffic signal priority, though regional coordination will be needed.
  • Frequent, reliable, convenient service: overhaul existing routes to create a more efficient system and provide flexible, on-demand transit services for areas not well served by conventional buses.
  • Balance regional and local bus systems: develop a 10-year plan to allocate services between bus systems and applicable routes. The plan also includes a recommendation to “revise the cost local jurisdictions pay WMATA for local service to better match the actual cost to provide service.”
  • Streamline back-office functions: most of the recommendations in this category are behind-the-scenes improvements, like consolidating support functions and developing regional standards for bus data collection and analysis.
  • Centralizing regional bus networks: form a regional coalition of jurisdictional representatives with authority to implement strategy recommendations.

The bus system has a long way to go if it wants to turn its image around. Since 2012, bus ridership has fallen 13 percent across the region. The project will also require cooperation from the region’s nine bus service providers.

Much of the project also depends on local jurisdictions to implement strategies like restricting parking to facilitate better bus transit. This is why representatives from Arlington Transit and several Arlington County departments are in the group’s technical team and strategy advisory panel.

Meanwhile, most of the technical team and all of the leadership team are WMATA employees.

So far there are no cost estimates for the plan’s recommendations. Allison Davis, a member of the project team, said the price tag will come later in the process.

The project started in September. The group is currently in the middle of a public outreach campaign to sell the public on the idea and gather feedback. At an open house yesterday at George Mason University’s Arlington campus, the room was covered with boards for collecting thoughts on the project and the direction it should take. A survey is also available online.

The plan goes to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the WMATA board this summer for review, with a roadmap planned for development in the fall.

“We’re trying to look at this from a customer perspective,” Davis said. “This [plan] is a tool we have to make better [transit] choices.”

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Morning Notes

A Look at Bryce Harper’s Rosslyn Apartment — “For much of the time that Harper was in a Nationals’ uniform, he rented a two-bedroom, 2,000 square-foot loft condo at the Wooster and Mercer Lofts, a luxury residential development from Abdo Development in Arlington.” [UrbanTurf]

Crash Takes Out Traffic Signal Near Fairlington — Per Alexandria Police yesterday: “Use caution in the 3600 block of King St, the Bradlee shopping center. A vehicle crash caused a traffic light outage. Treat uncontrolled intersections as 4-way stops. Be patient & take turns.” [Twitter]

Car Careens Over Wall in Arlington Mill — A car somehow rolled over a low wall and onto a sidewalk across from the Arlington Mill Community Center yesterday. The circumstances surrounding the crash are unclear. [Twitter]

Big Hole in Road Near Shirlington — A main road between the Shirlington and Fairlington neighborhoods was blocked for a period of time yesterday due to large hole in the road. The closure happened on 31st Street S., where a new sound wall is being constructed, during yesterday’s nightmarish evening commute. [Facebook]

Ballston Startup Gets Funding — MotoRefi, an auto refinance startup we profiled earlier this week, has “announced a $4.7 million seed raise led by Accomplice with participation from QED Investor sand Motley Fool Ventures. Ryan Moore, co-founder of Accomplice, will join MotoRefi’s board of directors.” [MotoRefi]

Service Cut to Metrobus Line — Metro is reducing service to Metrobus Route 2A (Dunn Loring-Ballston), after a ridership drop. Metro increased service to the line a few years ago and that net increase is now being eliminated. [Twitter]

Nearby: Companies Worried About HQ2 — “‘Recently a company was looking to put 600 jobs in this area, and they decided not to come here because they were concerned about getting the workers they need,’ [Fairfax County Economic Development Authority Chair Cathy] Lange said, not identifying the company. ‘Many of the companies are worried that their workers in Fairfax County are going to be hired by Amazon. And they are not going to be able to have their growth plans.'” [Washington Business Journal]

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Arlington Transit could soon roll back some of its bus service on two different routes, with county officials arguing that ridership isn’t robust enough on the routes to justify keep them going.

County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing the service reductions in his first draft of a new county budget for fiscal year 2020, which he forwarded on to the County Board for consideration last week.

The service cuts would primarily affect ART Route 53, running from the Ballston Metro up to the Chain Bridge Forest neighborhood in North Arlington and then down to East falls Church and Westover.

Schwartz is proposing eliminating midday service on that route, noting that it’s currently averaging about 7.4 riders per hour on buses along the route during the day — the bus service has a “minimum service standard” of 15 passengers per hour, according to documents forward along by Schwartz to the Board.

The manager is also calling for the elimination of rush-hour service to Westover on the route, as that section of the route is averaging just three riders per hour. Buses currently stop there near the intersection of Washington Blvd and Patrick Henry Drive.

Schwartz estimates that the changes would save the county about $244,000 each year, though staff also wrote that the elimination of that service “significantly impacts neighborhoods in the northernmost portion of the county that will lose all midday bus service.”

The buses currently provide service adjacent to five county elementary and middle schools north of Lee Highway, and staff estimate that the changes would leave the following neighborhoods without midday service:

  • N. Sycamore Street between 26th Street N. and Williamsburg Blvd
  • Williamsburg Blvd between N. Sycamore Street and N. Glebe Road
  • N. Glebe Road between Williamsburg Blvd and Military Road
  • Military Road/Quincy Street between N. Glebe Road and Fairfax Drive

However, Schwartz does point out in his message to the Board that Metrobus routes 2A, 23B and 23T also partially cover the area, as do ART routes 52, 55 and 72.

He’s also proposing cutting weekend service along ART Route 43, which runs between Courthouse and Crystal City.

With an average of four riders per hour, Schwartz argues that it isn’t coming close to meeting ART’s minimum ridership numbers, though weekday service remains robust and would remain under his current plans. That move could save the county nearly $196,000 each year.

These latest service reductions would follow persistent ridership declines for the bus service, as part of a broader decline in bus ridership nationwide. Schwartz also proposed eliminating two ART bus routes last year, and the Board ultimately agreed to those reductions in a budget defined by some difficult spending cuts.

Schwartz is proposing a total of $5.2 million in cuts this year, paired with a tax increase, though he has not proposed the sort of drastic spending slashes he initially feared. The Board will spend the new few weeks tinkering with the spending plan, with plans to adopt the final budget (perhaps including the ART service cuts) in April.

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As Arlington’s bus service grapples with a shortage of drivers, the company responsible for doing the hiring says it’s bumping up starting salaries to lure more applicants.

Arlington Transit told riders last week that a lack of bus drivers has been a prime factor in a series of service delays over the last few months, putting most of the blame on the National Express Transit Corporation, the company that employs the drivers.

The bus service lamented that it’s “lost a number of bus operators to other companies in the region, and the resulting operator shortages are contributing to many missed ART trips each day.” With a tight labor market, it’s a problem that many bus services around the country have been experiencing recently, analysts say.

But National Express is taking new steps to remedy the problem, according to company spokesman Ed Flavin. He told ARLnow that the contractor recently “implemented a considerable increase to our starting wage in cooperation with our local labor union,” which went into effect on Jan. 1, in order to reverse this trend.

“We also provide sign-on bonuses, as well as other employee incentives to help improve recruitment and retention,” Flavin wrote in an email. “Our efforts have provided promising results, with a [recent] increase in qualified applicants.”

Flavin did not answer follow-up questions about the size of the salary bump, or what sort of resulting increase in hiring the company has seen.

However, online job advertisements show that National Express is currently offering $20 per hour for new bus drivers, so long as they have at least one year of “commercial driver” experience. By contrast, the contractor working with the neighboring Fairfax Connector service is currently offering anywhere from $17 to $19 per hour for entry-level drivers.

“We recognize the importance of providing safe, reliable public transit for the ART community and we will continue to work hard to improve the reliability of ART service,” Flaven said. “Our number one priority will always be the safety of our customers.”

In the meantime, ART has still recorded some serious service issues. The “ART Alert” Twitter account, which announces all bus delays and cancellations, shows that the service has experienced 47 missed trips or other delays since Monday alone, though some of those problems are attributable to Tuesday’s snow and mechanical issues.

The bus service has indeed struggled with maintenance issues in recent months as well, in addition to problems with its real-time tracking service and phone service for disabled and elderly riders.

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Arlington’s bus service says a shortage of drivers and persistent maintenance problems are to blame for its struggles in providing consistent service these last few months.

Arlington Transit issued a statement to riders this past Friday (Jan. 18), explaining that some problems with the service’s contractor have caused a variety of “missed trips” recently.

The contractor in question, the U.K.-based National Express Transit Corporation, provides both bus drivers and maintenance services to run the county’s local and commuter buses. ART said in its blog post that National Express has recently “lost a number of bus operators to other companies in the region, and the resulting operator shortages are contributing to many missed ART trips each day.”

To make matters worse, ART says the company is also continuing to “deal with maintenance issues with our aging bus fleet, which is causing a number of buses to be out of service daily.”

ART last experienced similar problems this past June, when it commenced an expedited round of safety inspections. At the time, county officials also chalked up many of the problems to the age of its buses, though it was able to bring on 13 new buses this summer.

“The county continues to work with our contractor to improve service and ensure each ART route is operating with the number of buses needed each day,” ART officials wrote. “We apologize for these issues and will continue to do all things possible to hold our contractor accountable for providing reliable ART bus service.”

A spokeswoman for National Express did not immediately respond to a request for comment on these issues. ART has contracted with the company dating back to at least 2012, when National Express acquired a contract to provide ART service as part of the acquisition of the county’s old contractor.

The “ART Alert” Twitter account, which announces all bus delays and cancellations, reveals that bus service has indeed been inconsistent recently. The bus service reported 55 missed trips, mechanical issues or other delays over the course of the last week alone, according to the account, with routes running all across the county affected.

When it comes to the contractor’s problems retaining bus drivers, at least, it seems the company is hardly unique. Karen Finucan Clarkson, a spokeswoman for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, noticed the post from ART and pointed out that many other bus agencies are dealing with similar “bus driver shortages.”

“It is a statewide, regional and national issue, especially with unemployment so low,” Clarkson told ARLnow.

These service disruptions are simply the latest woes for ART, following a tough few months. Technical problems have also plagued its real-time bus tracking service in recent weeks, while its phone system to connect disabled and elderly riders to bus service crashed briefly this summer.

Photo via Facebook

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Arlington officials are calling off plans to buy a two-acre site in Fairfax County for a new bus maintenance facility, a move they expect will save the county millions over the years.

The County Board voted unanimously Friday (Dec. 7) to cancel its contract to spend $4.65 million on a site along the 6700 block of Electronic Drive in Springfield, originally designated as the future home of a “heavy maintenance facility” for Arlington Transit buses.

The county agreed to the land deal in December 2016, over concerns that it wouldn’t have enough space to store and maintain its growing fleet of ART buses. ART currently leases a storage yard in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County for the purpose, but the county managed to open a new maintenance facility in Crystal City last year and buy another property in Nauck for more space this summer.

County board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow that the latter purchase is what convinced the Board to abandon its Springfield plans.

Initially, the county planned to use that property, located on the 2600 block of Shirlington Road, as both bus storage and the home of a new ART “operations center.” But Cristol says that, once county engineers got the chance to examine the site more closely, they felt the property would have enough room to accommodate the maintenance functions planned for the Springfield site as well.

“Locating our maintenance operations outside the county was always among the best of no good options as we looked for more space for our buses,” Cristol said. “But once we discovered that the Shirlington Road site was large enough for maintenance as well, colocating things just made so much more sense.”

In all, Cristol expects cancelling the Springfield contract will save the county $10.5 million right off the bat, counting the purchase price and site preparation costs. She also estimates that the change will do away with another $900,000 in annual upkeep costs for the new property, which certainly qualifies as “good news” during the county’s current budget crunch.

County officials had eyed the Shirlington Road site for years before finally buying it for $23.9 million in July. ART once leased a section of the site for bus storage, but made the move to buy the entire property once it earned some state grants and other regional transportation money to defray the cost.

ART already beefed up its fleet of buses with some new purchases this summer, and plans to keep adding vehicles to meet a projected increase in ridership over the next decade or so.

Photo via Google Maps

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Arlington Transit will start running a new bus route to better connect Ballston and Shirlington later this month.

Starting Dec. 17, the bus service will introduce a “72” route, running from N. Glebe Road’s intersection with Old Dominion Drive in Rock Spring to the intersection of S. Quincy Street and S. Randolph Street near the Village at Shirlington. Buses will run every 20 minutes during rush hours and every 30 minutes the rest of the day, according to ART’s website.

The transit agency first surveyed riders about the new route this fall, and it will use it to run buses through the Ballston Metro station, via both directions of George Mason Drive. ART also plans to run new buses along the route, some of which it acquired this summer.

The new 72 route will involve the creation of a total of eight new bus stops, including:

Northbound Bus Stops

Stop 1 – N. Glebe Road and in front of the Marymount Admissions Building
Stop 2 – N. Glebe Road and 32nd Street N.
Stop 3 – N. Glebe Road and N. Albermarle Street
Stop 4 – N. Glebe Road and N. Abingdon Street

Southbound Bus Stops

Stop 5 – N. Glebe Road and 35th Road N.
Stop 6 – N. Glebe Road and 33rd Road N.
Stop 7 – N. Glebe Road and Rock Spring Road
Stop 8 – N. Glebe Road and Old Dominion Drive

The route will run from 5:58 am to 8:37 pm every weekday.

File photo

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Commuters to, and through, Arlington from Northern Virginia’s western suburbs will soon have a new bus option.

The Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, commonly known as PRTC, is starting up a new bus route to connect Haymarket to stops along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Starting Dec. 17, buses will stop at four locations in Haymarket, including a soon-to-be-completed commuter parking lot, and five stops in Arlington.

The new “OmniRide” route, approved by PRTC’s governing board earlier this month, will provide the first direct link between western Prince William County and Arlington’s urban core. PRTC currently runs buses connecting Woodbridge to Rosslyn, Ballston and Crystal City (and one route linking Gainesville to the Pentagon), but commuters along I-66 previously had to hop on Metro or another bus to reach the area.

“New routes always start with four trips in the mornings and four trips in the afternoons/evenings, and this route will follow that pattern,” PRTC spokeswoman Christine Rodrigo wrote in an email. “As ridership grows, additional morning and afternoon/evening trips can be added.”

Stops in Arlington will include:

  • The intersection of Fairfax Drive and N. Taylor Street, near the Ballston Metro station
  • The intersection of Fairfax Drive and N. Kansas Street, near George Mason University’s campus
  • The intersection of Wilson Blvd and N. Herndon Street, near the Clarendon Metro station
  • The intersection of Wilson Blvd and N. Veitch Street, near the Courthouse Metro station
  • The intersection of Wilson Blvd and N. Kent Street, near the Rosslyn Metro station

Del. Danica Roem (D-13th District) expects that the new bus route will be incredibly meaningful for her constituents in her western Prince William district — so much so that she says she was “over-the-moon ecstatic” when she heard the news that the route was becoming a reality.

Not only does she expect it will help Haymarket residents commuting to the Pentagon or other jobs around Arlington, but she sees plenty of local benefits too. The PRTC bus will provide yet another option for people traveling between Rosslyn and Ballston, and could ease some of the relentless traffic pressure on I-66 around Arlington.

“Arlington and Prince William County don’t exist in a vacuum without each other,” Roem told ARLnow. “We are connected. My constituents routinely work in and commute through Arlington. And Arlington relies on our highly skilled workers, just as they rely on Arlington to provide them with high-paying jobs to make those long commutes worth it… so I’m hoping this linking bus will enhance our connectivity, not just in terms of mass transit, but also in encouraging stronger working relationships between eastern Northern Virginia and western Northern Virginia. We need to realize we really are in this together.”

With no small degree of pride, Roem notes that the new bus route wouldn’t be possible had the General Assembly not acted to set a floor on the region’s gas tax this year, providing a stable source of funding for PRTC for the first time in years. Without that provision, included in the sweeping deal to provide dedicated funding for Metro, Roem expects PRTC wouldn’t have been able to afford the Haymarket-Arlington connection until next September.

However, she notes that new money will only get the new route “off the ground,” not fund it in perpetuity. Money from the I-66 tolls will eventually help keep the service running, but PRTC will still need to scrounge up additional funds until the toll money arrives, according to the transit service’s documents.

Even still, Roem has every confidence that PRTC will find a way to make the math work, especially because she fully expects to be popular among riders. She notes that many commuter lots in western Prince William are already thoroughly overcrowded, so there should be a constituency for the new route right away.

Additionally, Roem notes that Arlington Transit plans to honor PRTC’s tickets, allowing riders to easily connect from Rosslyn and Ballston to the Pentagon, or even Crystal City.

“Now, you’ve got yourself a commute connecting Haymarket all the way to the Pentagon,” Roem said. “And with Amazon coming in, we’re going to need a lot more mass transit going out to Crystal City. This is a small step in that direction.”

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Arlington is gearing up to extend its bus rapid transit system to better connect Crystal City to Pentagon City, and county officials are inviting people to learn more about the project at a meeting tonight (Thursday).

The county is holding an open house to show off details of the planned Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway extension, running from 6:30-8 p.m. in the Crystal City Shops (2100 Crystal Drive).

The Transitway currently operates between the Crystal City Metro station and the Braddock Road station in Alexandria, with dedicated bus lanes and stations covering about 4.5 miles in all. The expansion would add another .75 miles to the route, linking the Pentagon City Metro to the Crystal City stop.

The $27.7 million project is part of ongoing efforts to better connect the two neighborhoods, and the county recently earned millions in regional transportation funding to make it possible. The effort will involve the construction of seven new bus stations by the time it’s wrapped up.

It also includes new dedicated bus lanes set for the following streets, per the county’s website:

  • Crystal Drive from 15th Street S. to 12th Street S. and Long Bridge Drive (Includes curbside rush hour bus lanes and two stations, one on northbound Crystal Drive at 15th Street S., and one on westbound 12th Street S. at Long Bridge Drive).
  • 12th Street S. from Long Bridge Drive to S. Hayes Street (Includes exclusive bus lanes in the median, mixed traffic lanes, traffic signal upgrades, signage and pavement markings and three stations: east and westbound 12th Street S. at Elm Street, and eastbound 12th Street S. at S. Hayes Street)
  • S. Hayes Street from 12th Street S. to Army Navy Drive (This segment will connect to WMATA’s planned Pentagon City Center bus bays project on Army Navy Drive)

The Crystal Drive segment is currently the farthest along, with transportation planners currently in design discussions for the effort. The county is still in more conceptual discussions about the other two segments.

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Arlington Transit could soon add a new bus route to better connect Ballston to Shirlington, as part of a host of route and schedule changes on tap for this winter.

The county’s bus service is currently collecting community feedback on the service tweaks, with plans to finalize any changes by mid-December.

The most substantial of the proposed options would be the creation of a new ART route 72, running from N. Glebe Road’s intersection with Old Dominion Drive in Rock Spring to the intersection of S. Quincy Street and S. Randolph Street near the Village at Shirlington.

The route would run through the Ballston Metro station, via both directions of George Mason Drive, and offer buses once every 20 minutes during peak hours. ART hopes that the new route would work in conjunction with Metrobus’ 22A/C routes to “bring more frequent service between Ballston and Shirlington.”

The 72 route require the creation of eight new bus stops along N. Glebe Road, at the following intersections:

Proposed Northbound Bus Stops

Stop 1 – N. Glebe Road and in front of the Marymount Admissions Building
Stop 2 – N. Glebe Road and 32nd Street N.
Stop 3 – N. Glebe Road and N. Albermarle Street
Stop 4 – N. Glebe Road and N. Abingdon Street

Proposed Southbound Bus Stops

Stop 5 – N. Glebe Road and 35th Road N.
Stop 6 – N. Glebe Road and 33rd Road N.
Stop 7 – N. Glebe Road and Rock Spring Road
Stop 8 – N. Glebe Road and Old Dominion Drive

Other proposed service tweaks include running buses more frequently along the 45 route during peak hours, and reducing some service on the 52, 55 and 77 lines. ART would also tweak the schedules of 74, 84, and 87 routes to create better spacing between various buses and endure buses run on time more frequently.

The county is currently collecting feedback via an online survey, and will also hold a pair of public meetings on the subject this month.

One is set for this coming Tuesday, Oct. 9, at the Arlington Mill Community Center (909 S. Dinwiddie Street), while the other is scheduled for the Langston Brown Community Center (2121 N. Culpeper Street) on Oct. 11. Both will run from 6:30-8 p.m.

File photo

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Morning Notes

Memorial Ride for Arlington Cyclist — A memorial ride is planned tonight in D.C. for Arlington resident Thomas Hollowell, who was killed while riding his bike to work last week near the intersection of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. [Facebook]

Master Bike Plan for Arlington — Planners are putting the finishing touches on which bike infrastructure projects to include in Arlington County’s updated master plan. Currently in: the Army Navy Country Club Connector. Currently out: a connection from the Marine Corps War Memorial to the Roosevelt Bridge. [TheWashCycle]

Grumbles About Pike ‘Premium’ Bus — One outspoken Twitter user is on a mission to highlight the shortcomings of the new Columbia Pike “premium transit network.” Some have said the long-promised bus improvements have been underwhelming and have suffered the same service issues of every other mass transit line in town. However, the same Twitter user’s attempt at a petition to “bring back the Arlington streetcar” only has one signature so far. [Twitter, Change.org]

Walmart Buys Eloquii — Fashion-forward, plus-size women’s clothing retailer Eloquii has been acquired by Walmart. The e-commerce company opened its first bricks-and-mortar location at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City mall. [TechCrunch, Forbes]

Optimism for Malls — At a Bisnow event in Tysons yesterday, a panel of commercial real estate pros said shopping malls in urbanized areas like Tysons (and, by extension, Arlington) are better off than their more suburban counterparts that are suffering in the era of Amazon. In Arlington, the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and the soon-to-reopen Ballston Quarter account for a large portion of the local retail industry. [Tysons Reporter]

Reminder: Emergency Alert Test — Expect your phone to buzz and beep just after 2:15 p.m. as part of a nationwide federal emergency alert test. The alert will be sent via mobile carriers and the national Wireless Emergency Alerts system, not via Arlington County’s Arlington Alert. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler

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