As part of preparations for Metrorail’s long-awaited and much-delayed service to begin rolling in Loudoun next year, county leaders are working to make sure residents can make it to their trains.
Supervisors took a gamble on Metro in 2012 when they voted to extend the Silver Line into Loudoun County. Loudoun will now divert significant tax revenues to Metro—so it needs Metro to succeed and supervisors devoted time last week to a special transit summit to dig deeper into those issues.
Loudoun will have three Metrorail stops, one at Dulles Airport. The other two are in the median of the Dulles Greenway, and only one of them is expected to have significant residential development nearby. That means most people will not be walking to their train.
Driving to a Metro stop may not be everyone’s choice, either, when one of its main attractions is avoiding traffic. Nor does it help county leaders’ hope that Metro will get cars off of Loudoun’s congested roads.
Loudoun’s government-run bus service is beefing up in hopes that people will leave their cars at home—creating a new mass transit-oriented environment in a county that has been the textbook picture of suburban, car-oriented transportation. When Metro opens, Loudoun’s local bus service and its Metrorail connection buses—which currently go to stations in Fairfax—will be combined. Six more routes will join the county’s 21 bus routes, at an estimated $815,000.
Today, for many people, the bus system’s current model only makes getting to a train more complicated.
“My problem with the short-haul [bus] has been, it’s very much more a hub-and-spoke concept,” said board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “You have to get to a park-and-ride first to catch your bus to wherever.”
Buses pick up riders from park-and-ride lots—meaning to get a train, a person would have to first drive to the lot, then get onto a bus, then get onto a train. So some supervisors are pushing for neighborhood-level bus service in Loudoun’s most densely-populated areas.
“Let’s create stops along where there’s high population, and people could come out and pick up a bus to the Metro stations, because at least at the Ashburn station, I think that parking’s going to fill up,” Buona said. “And people that are in Ashburn, if they had an alternative, I think they would grab the bus to the Metro station.
Some of the groundwork for that has already been laid in Ashburn.
“They did add some of what I would consider more neighborhood type of service, they just didn’t add any south of Rt. 50,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “And I think there’s some opportunity there given the proximity to the stations and the amount of people who are commuting.”
Loudoun will not soon have bus stops on every corner like some urban DC-area communities. Not all of sprawling Loudoun is well-suited to bus service, Letourneau said—“some of those areas will probably not ever see the type of neighborhood service we’re talking about”—but for densely populated areas, it makes sense.
“I think some of them would probably take advantage of this if we offered it,” Letourneau said.
Bus service in the region may also be at a turning point as various jurisdictions and regional bodies—including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission—consider how to integrate the region’s various bus services.
“There’s this notion that for Northern Virginia, should there be like a regional Northern Virginia transportation system that’s one system that everybody’s participating in, or should we continue with having jurisdictions having different bus services that hopefully would complement each other,” said Letourneau, who chairs the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. He also serves as an alternate to theWashington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors, which operates bus services in other jurisdictions and which he said is expected to make a recommendation.
“Metro is far and away the biggest and most important entity and stakeholder in this discussion, and at the end of the day the jurisdictions are really going to work with whatever Metro decides, not the other way around,” Letourneau said.
Buona said uniting the bus services would be difficult—every jurisdiction does it differently, with different levels of service.
“I think what you have to look at interjurisdictionally is that the technology works together,” Buona said. “… if you can get on a local bus and still use your Metro card to get on a local bus on Ashburn Village Boulevard, you’ve got one form of payment.”
“We talk about what’s happening in Fairfax as if they’re the bus enemy of us, and truthfully we have to, at some point, move to talking about having interconnective bus services and rail services throughout the entire region,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large). “And not just within a county. That’s the eventual goal.”
That will be an important topic for Loudoun for more than one reason—Transit and Community Services Manager Scott Gross said the county can no longer find buses for sale with the county’s dated SmarTrip fare boxes.
Hopefully, Metro and bus service will mean cars off the roads, meaning less congestion and less pollution. Gross said Loudoun’s transit system has already had an impact.
“We had 40,501,312 vehicle miles pulled off the road,” Gross said. “That’s a lot. That equates to 169 trips to the moon. A better picture of that is, you could fill the Greenway with vehicles, all four lanes, going in both directions, for 40 straight days. That’s how many cars that takes off the roads. That’s what we’re doing with our transit system, that’s making an impact.”
“This is our third transit summit in four years, which is a lot in one board’s term, but it’s that darn important because we’re preparing for Metro to open, and we have to get this right,” Buona said.
“As we’ve built out our infrastructure, we’ve made a lot of progress, we’ve spent a lot of money, we’ve got a lot more to do and we’re going to spend more money,” Letourneau said. “But that can’t be the only solution, and it won’t be the only solution. So we’ve got to really start thinking and acting like a county that eventually will have half a million people and also be a major employer.”