Arlington, VA

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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Metro’s dire warnings about the impacts of track work in the latter half of this month seem to have effectively pushed Arlington commuters onto local bus routes instead — though bike share services didn’t see a similar ridership boost.

With the rail service’s major rebuilding work on the Silver, Orange and Blue lines fading in the rearview, Arlington transportation officials say their data show that both Metrobus and Arlington Transit ridership saw substantial jumps during the construction from Aug. 11 through Aug. 26.

Metro itself recorded an 11 percent dip in ridership over that period when compared to figures from 2017, largely attributable to WMATA’s persistent urging that commuters only use rail service if they had “no other option” for the two-week period. And in Arlington, at least, it seems that commuters weren’t shy about turning to bus options instead.

The Metrobus 3Y line, which runs from stops along Lee Highway to D.C.’s Farragut Square, recorded the biggest ridership surge, according to county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet. He says the county’s initial data show a 97 percent increase in average weekday ridership compared to the weeks prior to the track work starting, shooting from an average of 413 riders each day to 815.

He added that Metrobus’ 38B line, running from Ballston to Farragut Square, recorded a 38 percent increase, with average daily ridership jumping from 3,001 people to 4,136. Balliet noted that the county requested that Metro provide additional service along those lines, as they run along the Orange and Silver stops most likely to be affected by the track work.

As for ART buses, Balliet says the 43 route (running between the Crystal City, Rosslyn and Courthouse Metro stations) recorded a 67 percent increase in average weekday riders compared to a year ago. Last August, the bus service saw an average of 1,022 people on those buses each day; this year, it jumped up to 1,706.

Similarly, he said the 42 line between Ballston and the Pentagon saw a 16 percent jump, from last year’s 1,068 riders per day to 1,241. He attributes those changes to the fact those ART lines “parallel the segment of the Blue Line that was closed during the track work.” Metro shut down service on the line between the Arlington National Cemetery stop and the line’s New Carrollton terminus.

Jim Larsen, the county’s commuter services bureau chief, pointed out that those numbers amounted to increases of anywhere from 599 to 1,000 riders each day between the two bus services.

“Now, if we can only keep them,” Larsen said.

A spokesman for the dockless electric scooter company Bird says the firm also saw “ridership grow consistently this summer as commuters sought new options to avoid delays on multiple lines,” but didn’t provide specific numbers.

The track work did not produce a similar ridership bump for bike-sharing in the county, however.

Compared to the same two-week period a year ago, the number of Capital Bikeshare trips originating in Arlington was “virtually the same, though down just a smidge,” according to Bike Arlington Director Henry Dunbar.

In all, the county’s stations recorded about 17,041 trips during the track work. From Aug. 12-27, 2017 the county saw 17,180 trips, Dunbar said.

Spokespeople for the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft did not respond to requests for comment on any ridership changes they observed during the track work.

Anecdotally, it would seem that the Metro construction inspired some commuters to turn to their cars rather than transit options. For instance, some ARLnow commenters mentioned hefty backups on the Key Bridge and 14th Street Bridge to make it into D.C. in the first place.

In all, 73 percent of the more than 1,400 respondents to an (admittedly unscientific) ARLnow poll on the issue said the Metro track work affected their commutes in some way.

Metro was even scheduled to do a bit more work on the Silver, Orange and Blue lines this weekend, prompting single-tracking through Rosslyn. However, it announced today (Thursday) it’d be abandoning those plans.

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Arlington Transit is closing several bus stops around Ballston to cope with construction this weekend.

Starting tonight (Friday) at 9 p.m. and running through Sunday (Aug. 12) at 7 p.m., the bus service plans to close the following stops along its 41 line:

  • Northbound N. Randolph Street at Wilson Blvd
  • Southbound N. Randolph Street at the Ballston Quarter mall
  • Northbound N. Glebe Road at N. Quincy Street
  • Northbound N. Glebe Road at N. Henderson Road

ART noted in a service alert that some stops along N. Glebe Road and Wilson Blvd will remain open, should riders need options along the corridor.

The construction work prompting the bus stop closures will require occasional road closures as well, as it’s largely tied to the Ballston Quarter construction and some summer paving work.

Photo via Google Maps

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