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.
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
Arlington Transit’s real-time bus tracking service has been plagued by more technical difficulties this week, and county officials say they’re still unsure when they’ll find a permanent fix.
ART notified riders Wednesday morning (Jan. 16) that it was experiencing “intermittent problems” with the service, which is designed to let riders know how long they need to wait for another bus to arrive.
The county’s bus service sent out a similar advisory on Jan. 7, and on two different occasions in October as well. Last April, the bus service even saw several days-long outages of the system.
County transportation spokesman Eric Balliet told ARLnow that Arlington’s Transit Bureau is currently in contact with the vendor who manages the software, California-based Connexionz. Balliet said the company is currently investigating the “GPS communication system,” which it believes to be the source of the problems, but there’s no end in sight at the moment.
“Our Transit Bureau is pressing the vendor to come up with a permanent solution to the problem, but we don’t have a timeline on when the issue will be resolved,” Balliet wrote in an email.
As of Friday afternoon, however, ART’s real-time arrivals web page was generally working as intended.
ART has also dealt with some problems with its phone system to connect disabled and elderly riders to bus service this past summer, not to mention a host of bus maintenance woes necessitating some service disruptions.
Arlington is gearing up to ask for millions in I-66 toll revenue to fund a series of changes along Lee Highway, including the creation of a dedicated bus and HOV lane along the road during rush hours.
The County Board is set to sign off this weekend on funding requests for six transportation projects, totaling $6.9 million, four of which focus on reducing traffic along Lee Highway as it runs from Rosslyn to East Falls Church.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission doles out a portion of the revenues collected through the year-old I-66 toll program to localities, in order to help afford road improvements along the corridor inside the Beltway. Accordingly, Arlington is looking for cash for the following efforts along Lee Highway, per a county staff report:
Metrobus Route 3Y Service Improvements — $520,000 per year for five years, total request $2.6 million
This project will increase morning peak hour frequency and provide running time improvements for better on-time performance on the subject Metrobus route that connects the East Falls Church Metrorail Station with the Farragut Square and McPherson Square areas in the District of Columbia via Lee Highway and a short section of I-66 from Rosslyn to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.
Intersection Improvements at Lee Highway and Washington Boulevard — $400,000
This project will add a second left turn lane from northbound Lee Highway to westbound Washington Boulevard and provide pedestrian improvements at the intersection north of the bridge over I-66, which is 0.25 miles from the East Falls Church Metrorail Station.
Enhanced Vehicle Presence Detection on Lee Highway — $20,000 per intersection for 15 intersections, total request $300,000
This project will install forward looking infrared (FLIR) video cameras at key intersections along Lee Highway. FLIR technology uses thermographic cameras that improve the accuracy of vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle detection in all lighting and weather conditions, and in turn improve optimal signal, intersection, and corridor operations and performance.
Design and Construct Peak Period, Peak Direction HOV and Bus-Only Lane on Lee Highway from just east of N. Kenmore Street to N. Lynn Street — $1.5 million
This project would convert the outside lane of Lee Highway to an HOV and bus only lane through pavement treatment, restriping, and signage. The lane would operate eastbound during the morning peak period and westbound during the evening peak period only; at other times it will continue as a general purpose travel lane.
The final project on the list is one that the county initially considered back in 2016 as an effort to prepare for Metro’s “SafeTrack” schedule disruptions, and the new lane would’ve run from Court House to Rosslyn. However, county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet says that lane was never constructed, and the new proposal calls for it to run from Cherrydale to Rosslyn instead.
The county expects a new lane would be particularly impactful along that section of the highway because about “25 loaded buses per hour” drive along it during peak period, and they often run into heavy delays near the highway’s intersection with N. Lynn Street in Rosslyn, according to the report.
In addition to the Lee Highway changes, officials are also hoping to earn $750,000 to add a new traffic light to the Washington Blvd entrance to the East Falls Church Metro station, as well as crosswalks and other pedestrian improvements at the intersection.
Finally, the county plans to ask for a total of $1.3 million over the next three years for “enhanced transportation demand management outreach” along the corridor, educating commuters about public transit and other strategies for getting cars off the road.
The Board is set to approve these funding requests at its meeting on Saturday (Dec. 15), and the NVTC will accept applications through Jan. 16. The organization plans to hand out $20 million in funding across the region through the program next year.
Photo via Google Maps
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.”
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.
Arlington County’s bus service saw another substantial dip in ridership this spring compared to the same time last year, new numbers provided to regional transportation planners show.
Arlington Transit recorded a 15 percent drop in riders in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2018, covering April through June, compared to the same period a year ago.
The latest figures forwarded to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission show that the bus service recorded 745,850 passenger trips over that three month stretch, down from 874,695 a year ago.
That number is actually a 6.6 percent increase from ART’s ridership figures covering January through March. But those numbers were also disappointing ones for the bus service, as they represented a 17 percent drop from the same time period in 2017, meaning that ART has recorded ridership declines for the last two quarters in a row.
The latest ridership statistics represent an even steeper drop still from the same time period in 2016, when ART recorded 905,661 passenger trips — equivalent to a 17.6 percent decline.
These figures come as bus services nationwide cope with ridership declines, as the D.C. region as a whole struggles to convince riders to embrace public transit. The NVTC’s numbers also show that Metrobus ridership in Northern Virginia localities dipped by 9 percent this quarter compared to a year ago, though Metro ridership did tick slightly upward at most Arlington stations.
“The depth of erosion in bus ridership has been more than what we were expecting,” County Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey previously told ARLnow. “As riders returned to Metro after SafeTrack, we would’ve expected a modest reduction, but it’s just been more substantial than we thought.”
The county has indeed previously blamed some of the decline in bus ridership on riders returning to Metro after the aforementioned intense rehab work, though the rail service has continued to deal with lengthy delays due to construction, which recently resulted in some riders embracing bus options this summer. Other potential culprits include the increasing popularity of ride-sharing or telecommuting.
Dorsey says the county’s approach to reversing that trend will remain the same as ever: “keep investing in places where people want to go.” He added that the county is also working to “refresh” some of its older ART buses, which could help lure riders back to the service.
“We’re investing in new coaches for greater comfort, which is always helpful,” Dorsey said. “When ART was introduced, one of the benefits that convinced people to move to the bus was they were cleaner and quieter. But as they’ve aged, that competitive advantage has declined. We just need to reinvest in ART a little bit.”
Arlington Transit bus riders could see delays across several routes over the course of the next week.
Unspecified “mechanical issues” are causing the delays, according to an ART service alert issued today (Monday). ART did not list specific routes that will be impacted, noting only that the routes will operate “at reduced frequencies” and that it will issue alerts about upcoming delays “as needed.”
A spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Environmental Services, which oversees ART, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the nature of the mechanical issues. ART buses have on occasion suffered brake failures, leading to significant crashes, though it is unclear whether this week’s delays are in any way related.
So far, buses on ART Route 77 between the Courthouse Metro station and ART’s Shirlington station have recorded several delays, and some departures have been canceled entirely, according to county service alerts.
“Staff is currently working to quickly resolve these problems but we anticipate service disruptions on ART routes throughout the week,” ART wrote in the alert. “We apologize for the inconvenience as we work to ensure the safety and reliability of our fleet.”
ART opened a new, $17.6 million “light maintenance facility” on S. Eads Street last fall, and the county is planning to someday open a “heavy maintenance facility” in Springfield, after the County Board approved the purchase of a site there for $4.65 million.
(Updated at 9:35 a.m.) A PRTC commuter bus smashed into the side of the Lenox Club apartment building in Pentagon City Wednesday evening.
The crash happened just before 6 p.m., along 12th Street S. The bus, which was not carrying passengers at the time, hopped the curb, struck the front of a convertible and ran into a storefront on the side of the building.
Three people were transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, according to Arlington County Police spokeswoman Ashley Savage. Among those injured were the bus driver, a pedestrian and one person who was inside the building, Savage said.
Structural engineers have been called to inspect the base of the high-rise building, which remained open for residents. 12th Street S. between Army Navy Drive and S. Eads Street remains closed while police investigate the crash.
No word yet on whether the driver will face any charges.
401 12th St. S. pic.twitter.com/8QqXRzvC2M
— LincolnACFD (@LincolnACFD) March 29, 2017
— Josh (@josh13x) March 30, 2017
— Tiffany Harrison (@TiffAnn_89) March 30, 2017
Photos (top) courtesy Sid, @josh13x
ART 43 will run from the Crystal City Metro Station to the Crystal City VRE station and Rosslyn and Courthouse Metro Stations between 5:55 a.m. and 8:55 a.m. and 3:20 to 7:17 p.m. starting March 31.
The bus will only run during rush hour on weekdays; there’s no planned off-peak or weekend service yet. The bus schedule indicates a 20-minute travel time from the Crystal City Metro stop to Courthouse.
The new bus is designed to serve as an alternative to the Blue Line. On the same day, Metrobus is launching two bus lines of its own — called 10R and 10S — that will travel between Crystal City and Rosslyn.
Arlington says the three lines will combine to ensure a bus going to Rosslyn from Crystal City will be available an average of every 10 minutes.
Every afternoon for the past week — and quite possibly for longer than that — this Loudoun County Transit bus has parked itself on the right shoulder of the busy ramp from Route 110 to Route 1 in Pentagon City, forcing cars to veer to the left as they drive by.
Other commuter buses in the area like to idle on the side of bumpy, narrow Old Jefferson Davis Highway while waiting to pick up passengers in Crystal City, but for some reason this bus likes the on-ramp.
There’s got to be a safer place to park, right?