WASHINGTON – Metro Board committee members gave mixed feedback on a consultant’s drafted strategy and accompanying suggestions to overhaul bus operations throughout the metropolitan region.
Rich Davey of Metro’s consultant the Boston Consulting Group – joined by Chairman of the project’s Executive Steering Committee Rob Puentes – presented to the Board Safety and Operations Committee July 25 about the drafted strategy.
“Bus itself is not going to be the silver bullet to improve the region,” Davey told the Safety and Operations Committee.
Puentes is one of the dozens of stakeholders, including local business leaders, elected officials, union leaders and riders, as well as Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) staff, involved in providing input on the project.
WMATA is paying the consultants $2.2 million to review the operations of various bus companies in Washington, D.C, Virginia and Maryland, to create a plan to improve it and to potentially help boost ridership. Metro did not intend for the study to look at individual bus routes.
Davey said the Bus Transformation Project, as the study is being called, could mean addressing a few problems that frustrate riders, such as improving reliability and punctuality. The presentation included an overview of feedback from jurisdiction representatives, bus riders and various other stakeholders on the draft plan. Davey said the strategy was met with mixed responses.
Next, there was an opportunity for committee members to give feedback to the consultants.
Part of the drafted strategy was to have some bus routes transferred from Metrobus to local bus providers if they were determined to be local bus routes. Most jurisdictional stakeholders rejected that part of the strategy.
Some jurisdictions had told the board members they are concerned about the logistics of element 4. Committee Chairman Michael Goldman, who represents Montgomery County, said Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties asked questions about redistributing routes between Metro and local bus providers, as well as other parts of the overall strategy.
If Metro were to transfer some of its bus routes to local transportation providers such as RideOn in Montgomery County or TheBus in Prince George’s County, the jurisdictions wanted to know how the strategy would play out for them. Problems of ownership and storage would need to be addressed.
Goldman said it was also unclear from the presentation how consultants would recommend that the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) divert subsidies from WMATA to the local jurisdictions, in case routes would be determined to be local and were therefore transferred to local bus companies.
“The subsidy problem is a big problem on the Maryland side,” said Goldman about redistributing state funds if bus routes were transferred from Metrobus.
Maryland, D.C. and Virginia legislatures passed legislation in 2018 for dedicated funding, or to reserve capital funds for Metro each year, totaling $500 million in capital dollars annually. The Virginia and Maryland legislation included a cap that limits operating subsidies to WMATA and will not increase by more than 3% per year.
WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the idea of transitioning some bus routes operated by WMATA to local jurisdictions may have come from the steering committee. The definition of local and regional bus routes is explained in board policy.
Alternate Board Member Thomas Graham, who represents Prince George’s County, asked Davey with who in the county, the consultants or executive steering committee would communicate about possible revisions to the draft strategy. Davey said he was not aware of a plan to communicate specifically with the county.
Committee Member and Board Chairman Paul Smedberg, who represents Virginia, asked if people are concerned about the reassigning bus routes to local jurisdictions. Davey answered that riders surveyed said whoever provided the buses did not concern them; they wanted the buses to take them to their destinations, arrive on schedule and, in some cases, arrive more frequently.
Not all feedback on the plan to overhaul the bus systems carried a tone of criticism.
Board members – and stakeholders, according to Davey – said they accepted the first three elements of the draft strategy, which include: “make the bus customer-focused and an easy-to-use option that people want to ride,” “give priority to buses to efficiently move people quickly and reliably” and “provide frequent and convenient bus service to improve the quality of life in the region.”
Devin Rouse, an alternate board member who represents the federal government, said he would support making the bus easier for riders to use. He believes the ease of use would play a role in whether people are comfortable riding the bus.
Acting D.C. Board Member Tom Bulger said he saw a hole in the strategy. He wondered how the strategy could be implemented without the local transportation departments’ involvement.
“None of our bus operators have any control over the road network, the road system,” Bulger said. “I haven’t heard any talk about (…) how (VDOT, MDOT or DDOT) is reacting to having their road network used by buses.”
Instead, Bulger said, the study must incorporate “what Annapolis, Richmond and the District thinks about this, because they’re a major player and we’re a secondary player; (or) we’re a secondary user,” Bulger said. “That to me is the big question mark as to how we should proceed.”
The fifth and sixth elements of the drafted plan for overhaul were “streamline back-office functions and share innovation across bus systems in the region,” and “establish a regional steward to (implement the strategy to) transform the bus system,” respectively. Several jurisdictions said they disagreed with the sixth element because they did not believe a new leadership body was necessary.
The consultants and committees involved in the Bus Transformation Project are scheduled to complete the final version of their strategy and recommendations this summer, according to a memorandum to the committee for the July 25 meeting. The project team will use the strategy and recommendations to create a draft plan of action for one, three, five and 10 years this fall, and deliver the final documents in winter 2019.