Ridership on Metroway, the BRT route that runs from Braddock Road to Pentagon City, has been climbing since the service started in 2014. Yet WMATA is still considering shutting it down to save money. That’d negate years of planning and construction and sour public opinion on transit.
In 2014, WMATA introduced a bus rapid transit (BRT) service called Metroway, whose MW1 line runs between Braddock Road in Alexandria and Crystal City in Arlington. As our region’s only BRT, Metroway runs in its own lane parallel to Route 1; its ability to skip traffic makes it a reliable transportation option.
Metroway ridership has been growing since it first opened. WMATA’s 9S bus, which it replaced, had a daily ridership of 1,091 in its final year running. But by June 2015, Metroway ridership was at about 1,400 people per day, and as ridership grew, Metroway expanded it’s service to the Pentagon City Metro station.
At the heart of the MW1 route (which remains Metroway’s only line) is Potomac Yard, a former 295-acre rail yard, which used to be on EPA’s list of hazardous sites but has been growing into a great example of transit-oriented development (TOD) over the past decade. As large apartment buildings in Potomac Yard have gone up, so has the number of people riding Metroway.
In 2016, Metroway saw a roughly 50% increase in ridership over the same months in 2015. In June of 2016, the average daily ridership topped 2,000 for the first time.
Metroway is quite cheap compared to other WMATA concerns
Last week, WMATA released several radical ideas to close the gap between its operating budget and allocated funds for Fiscal Year 2018.Included in a collection of ideas to save $10 million on bus service was eliminating 20 bus routes that WMATA has to subsidize because fares don’t cover costs. In Metroway’s case, WMATA pays $3.5 million extra per year to run the service, which is nearly three times the amount of money the 20 routes averaged together. To put that in perspective, WMATA projects a budget gap of $275 million for FY 2018, and that number is likely to grow in the future. While we typically talk about rail in terms of decades and in magnitudes of billions of dollars, BRT offers options for smaller areas at a fraction of the cost—a $3.5 million compared to hundreds of millions, for example—and time. For instance, the Silver Line was part of the original Metro planning during the 1960s, and the construction cost for Phase II alone is $3 billion. The Potomac Yard Metro Station also has roots dating back to the original Metro planning, was in various forms of development beginning in the early 90’s, and will be complete in 2020 at an estimated cost of $268 million. On the other hand, the time between the completing the conceptual design for the Metroway BRT Route and the grand opening was only 41 months at a cost of only $42 million for construction. Beyond that, Metroway is just getting started. Why cut it off now? Metroway has a growing ridership, as it serves an area that’s growing. In fact, it has far more riders than the other 19 bus lines proposed for elimination, with the average ridership among the others being less than 500 riders per day. Only one other route, Oxon Hill-Fort Washington, has more than 1,000 riders per day. Also, recent numbers Metro used to evaluate Metroway for its recent budget report were distorted: During SafeTrack surges 3 and 4 in July, anyone transferring from Metro was allowed to ride Metroway for free, which pushed ridership from being over 2,000 paying customers per day down to around 1,300. The next month, though, ridership was back over 2,000. If Metroway stays around, ridership will grow and Metro will come closer and closer to breaking even on Metroway. With the next wave of development starting to kick off in the north end of Potomac Yard and Oakville Triangle, even more potential riders will have a chance to use the service.. That brings up another point: Metroway has come on board to serve the TOD of Potomac Yard. Eliminating the line would add more congestion to the Route 1 corridor, defeating the purpose of TOD. It could also drive up automobile ownership among residents who relied on the system. Also, WMATA has already invested in the infrastructure needed to run BRT, and while it was far cheaper than a rail project, it’s still a lot to simply throw away. The years of planning and construction are in place, which represent a cost 12 times greater than the annual subsidy, which should decrease as development continues. Shutting down these lanes would be another black eye for WMATA. Finally, residents’ opinion of BRT matters, as other jurisdictions begin to develop their own systems. Montgomery County is planning a 14 mile stretch along Route 29 that is part of a larger 80 mile system. Eliminating this line would sour the public opinion and possibly derail other local jurisdictions from developing their own. As WMATA continues to face ridership declines from what it calls “poor service quality and high profile disruptions and safety incidents” that plague the rest of their system, it would be foolish to cut this growing asset.