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WASHINGTON — Past efforts to improve bus service have failed in the D.C. region because jurisdictions were using tactics, not a regional strategy, Metro consultants say.
Metro leadership wants to change the business model of bus service in the region, both for Metrobus and for local bus service such as Ride On in Montgomery County and TheBus in Prince George’s County.
Metro awarded a contract for up to $2.2 million to engineering company AECOM to study the business model of bus service in the Washington Metropolitan area, which includes D.C., Maryland and Virginia, Metro spokesperson Ron Holzer said. The project may take about 18 months to complete. Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader said Metro is branding the project, a regional bus study, as the Bus Transformation Project.
“The region’s business model for running a sustainable bus network must be updated,” according to a plan outlined by consultants, distributed at their opening summit Sept. 12. “Metro and the jurisdictions have studied and planned tactical, local improvements to bus services, but these ad-hoc improvements have fallen short of stabilizing or strengthening the business model for this century.”
Holzer said AECOM is performing the study, not Metro.
Bus ridership for the D.C. area has decreased by 13 percent from 2012 to 2017, even though the bus service levels, measured in service miles per year, increased, according to the national transit database.
Two members of the Montgomery County Council Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment
Committee, committee chairman Roger Berliner (D-1) and committee member Nancy Floreen, said they are glad Metro contracted a study of the region’s bus business model.
“Ridership has declined for buses, and so many communities are trying to figure out what they can do in order to reverse that trend,” said Berliner. “I’m pleased that WMATA has looked at this seriously – is looking at it seriously.”
Floreen, who is running for Montgomery County Executive, said she is glad the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority responded to a growing need for change by funding the study.
“I agree that we need to think differently about bus service, and we need to think regionally,” said Floreen, later adding, “I think Montgomery County should be part of a regional transportation authority in general. moving forward, we need to think differently about how we move. We have Metro, but that’s [only part of it].”
Ridership decreases led to a revenue drop. Metro’s Board of Directors increased fares to help make up part of the funding gap, but the revenue from fares from Fiscal Year 2015 to Fiscal Year 2018 did not increase at a steady rate according to Metro budget books. The cost to operate Metro bus service also increased, meaning Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld had to ask jurisdictions D.C, Maryland and Virginial for more money.
One challenge to funding Metrobus service sustainably is state subsidies for Metro operating costs cannot increase by more than 3 percent from year to year, according to legislation from Maryland and Virginia passed in their most recent legislative sessions. That legislation outlined dedicated funding, or dedicated a set amount of funds in the respective budgets, for Metro’s capital budget.
Holzer said the population in the D.C. area and options for travel have changed, and alternate options for working such as telework have been added, while Metro bus routes have stayed the same. “As such, Metro initiated a study to overhaul its bus network that will examine travel patterns, customer demand, technology opportunities, first/last mile private carriers, and how to more cost-effectively deliver regional versus local bus service to riders,” said Holzer [sic].
One element the consultants will study is paying for Metrobus service. The jurisdictions that fund Metrobus such as Montgomery County, Alexandria and Fairfax County, have different formulas to calculate what they pay Metro for bus service. Consultants say the funding formulas should instead be connected to “the benefits of the system.”
The issues are not just for funding bus service, both Metro and local bus companies, but also in coordinating goals between state and local government and bus service providers across the D.C. region. “Transit operators and roadway owners do not share the same incentives,” according to a presentation provided by the consultants Sept. 12.
Floreen said she believes that the different jurisdictions served by Metrobus should work together as a region.
“We tend to think about internal, community [bus] service and not that people get on the bus to travel longer distances such as between jurisdictions,” Floreen said. “We are part of a region; [we should] try to think regionally.”