Running on Empty: Prince William’s Tysons Express Bus on Chopping Block
WOODBRIDGE, Va. — It was always a possibility that one day the bus which carries commuters from Woodbridge to Tysons Corner could stop running. Not because it ran out of gas, but money.
The Tysons OmniRide bus, which provides commuter service along the newly opened 495 Express Lanes, is poised to cease when Virginia pulls funding for service. The bus started running in 2009 at the height of construction on the 495 Express Lanes on the Capital Beltway. The idea was to take more people off the highways, and the state picked up the tab.
The Express Lanes on the Capital Beltway opened in 2012, and new Express Lanes on Intestate 95 are set to open next year. When complete, they’ll connect with the lanes on the Capital Beltway, providing vehicles with three or more occupants, buses, and motorcycles a seamless, free, predictable commute from North Stafford to Tysons Corner. Single drivers or those with only one passenger may choose to pay to use the new lanes.
Now that Express Lane construction on I-95 is nearing an end, the 100% state subsidy will also end. PRTC proposes to stop operating the commuter bus route in November 2014 because the special purpose for its implementation has been fulfilled and because ridership numbers are lower than what was expected, plateauing at about 165 riders per day.
— PRTC press release
PRTC will hold a public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 10 inside their transit center in Woodbridge to get public comments on whether the bus should stay or go. But looking at the financial climate at PRTC, and noting that Prince William County would become the majority funder of the bus route at some $200,000 annually – the decision to end the service may already be made.
“Please remember that the Tysons route was implemented specifically to relieve congestion during the construction of the I-495 Express Lanes, and the state later decided to continue its 100% sponsorship of the route during construction of the I-95 Express Lanes. The PRTC Board of Commissioners explicitly stated in 2008 when it agreed to operate the route that it was not committing to continue the route once the state’s 100% funding ended,” stated PRTC spokeswoman Christine Rodrigo in an email.
So far, there has been no new funding source identified to pay for the service. Fares cannot do it alone.
Though launched in 2009, PRTC says the Tyson’s bus didn’t hit its stride until three years later, according to statistics provided by the transit agency:
— Peak ridership was 178 per day, but average daily ridership is 163 per day. When the route started, we projected that average daily ridership would be 240. There are 4 trips to Tysons in the mornings, and 5 trips from Tysons in the afternoons/evenings, so each bus carries an average of 18 passengers.
— Peak ridership was reached in Oct 2012, dropped off over the winter and then peaked again in Nov 2013.
Talk about ending the Tysons bus comes as construction of the 95 Express Lanes – the equivalent to the little cousin of the 495 Express Lanes project – is still underway.
So, what if PRTC decided to keep the Tysons bus and cut another service? That’s unlikely. Rodrigo put it to PotomacLocal.com in an email:
… PRTC is facing a possible financial crisis in FY2017 when the County’s current source of public transportation funding (the reserve built up from previous years when the 2.1% fuels tax brought in more revenue than the county spent on PRTC and VRE) is exhausted. PRTC is always looking for ways to cut expenses and spend wisely, and those efforts are especially vital now with the possibility of significant cuts to service and workforce reductions if the financial crisis isn’t resolved. We could not justify changes to other routes or the delay/cancellation of projects that would impact far more passengers in order to sustain the Tysons route. Frankly there is no remaining low-hanging fruit.
Here are the details of the public hearing in case you want to go:
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The public hearing will be held on September 10 at 7 p.m. at the PRTC Transit Center in Woodbridge. Those who cannot attend the public hearing may submit written comments until 5 p.m., September 17, 2014, via email to publichearing@OmniRide.com or by mailing the comments to PRTC, Attn: Public Hearing, 14700 Potomac Mills Road, Woodbridge, VA 22192. A PowerPoint presentation with information about the route and more detailed reasons for its proposed cessation are available at PRTCtransit.org.