Photo by greychr on Flickr.

The WMATA Board will consider a package of changes to Metrobus routes at its meeting tomorrow. There are many small changes to routes, but one that could affect a large number of residents is a proposal from DC and Fairfax County to cut the 5A bus to Dulles.

The bus may become unnecessary once the Silver Line’s Phase 2 goes all the way to the airport. In the meantime, Fairfax County has established a bus from Tysons Corner, in addition to the Washington Flyer bus to East West Falls Church.

There are a lot of other small bus route changes in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, especially east of the Anacostia and around Burke and East Falls Church. The NH1 National Harbor bus will get another reroute and will now go to King Street in Alexandria, while Prince George’s County will add a The Bus route to Southern Avenue to accommodate National Harbor employees.

The 5A serves a variety of riders

The 5A connects L’Enfant Plaza, Rosslyn, and the airport with a $6 fare. It was able to operate very successfully with a mix of people going to the airport for air trips, employees at the airport, and commuters from Herndon and points west.

Image from NextBus.

The bus started out in 2000 with a grant from DC to provide reverse commute service from the District to Tysons and the Dulles corridor. It originally had 2 variants: the 5A went from L’Enfant Plaza to Dulles Airport, and the 5B ended at the Herndon-Monroe Park and Ride. In 2006, WMATA merged the two.

Once the grant expired, the various jurisdictions agreed to keep funding the 5A separate from the regular funding formula, which didn’t really fit the 5A. Fairfax created its Tysons-Dulles bus, and officials in that county and at the District Department of Transportation are now considering whether the two jurisdictions can eliminate their funding for the 5A.

The 5A and Washington Flyer make an imperfect pair

Even at $6, the 5A is cheaper than the Washington Flyer and rail ($10 for the Flyer plus the rail fare). A report on airport bus service from the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC) notes that many people ride the 5A from the Herndon Park and Ride, likely using the bus as an alternative to more expensive commuter buses.

The RAC report says that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has never cooperated with WMATA much about the 5A:

The original 5A stop was located far from the terminal building and marked with a black and white sign that did not conform to WMATA signage standards, making it confusing to regular system riders. (MWAA originally argued that WMATA signage did not conform to the airport’s color scheme.) The stop was eventually moved in closer to the arrivals area and standard WMATA signage was permitted.

WMATA officials note, however, that barriers to use of the 5A remain in place at Dulles: WMATA is still unable to post signs within the airport itself directing passengers to the 5A; official airport announcements in the arrivals area tell customers that the Washington Flyer and MWAA-sponsored taxis are the only forms of airport transportation endorsed and authorized by the airport authority; airport employees do not currently receive Smartbenefits from MWAA which could potentially be used on the 5A; and there is no place to purchase a Smartrip card within the terminal.

Having two separate buses, each running at infrequent headways (30 minutes for the Flyer, 40-60 for the 5A) indeed seems inefficient. Perhaps better coordination between WMATA, area jurisdictions, and MWAA could allow a more frequent bus for the years until the Silver Line reaches Dulles Airport.

What can happen with the 5A?

Options besides cutting the 5A, WMATA bus planner Jim Hamre told the RAC last winter, include keeping it with a new stop at Wiehle, or turning it into a shuttle just between the airport and Wiehle (in other words, a WMATA version of the Washington Flyer).

According to the RAC report, the Flyer still loses money. It once traveled all the way to downtown DC, but private operators refused to bid on such an expensive service. The current contract will end next year. Rather than treating the Flyer as a concession contract, It seems it might be better to have WMATA or another area transit operator run the “Flyer” as a public bus (perhaps even numbered 5A).

Do you think DC and Fairfax should stop funding the 5A? What airport transit should exist once the Silver Line opens, but before it gets to the airport? What about after?

The WMATA Board’s action tomorrow would just put these changes out for public hearings in September. The board would then vote on a final set of changes in the fall to take effect between December 2013 and June 2014.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.