Image by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

This post is part of an ongoing series about how Prince George’s County could improve TheBus, its public bus system. You can read the next post here.

Prince George’s County’s TheBus service provides transportation for thousands of residents every weekday. By several measurements, however, its ridership and cost-effectiveness are among the lowest in the region. TheBus can be better, and we’ll be exploring how in a series of posts.

Which bus?

When most residents of the Washington region hear the phrase “the bus,” the first image that comes to mind is a Metrobus. Metrobus, run by WMATA, is by far the largest bus service in the region, and provides service in Prince George’s, Montgomery, Fairfax, and Arlington Counties and the Cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Falls Church, as well as in the District.

However, each of the eight jurisdictions served by WMATA (except the City of Falls Church) also operates its own local bus network with its own name. While Ride-On in Montgomery County, ART in Arlington, DASH in Alexandria, CUE in the City of Fairfax, Fairfax Connector in Fairfax County, and the DC Circulator in the District have relatively creative names, Prince George’s County calls its bus service “TheBus.” (Fun fact: this is also the name of Honolulu’s bus system — aloha!)

TheBus service was first introduced in January 1990, with two lines connecting the county government in Upper Marlboro to the Orange Line at New Carrollton and the Blue Line at its then-terminus, Addison Road. More comprehensive service began in April 1996, when the system was expanded to six routes served by 12 buses.

Today, TheBus operates 29 routes, which is still relatively limited compared to Ride-On’s nearly 78 and Fairfax Connector’s 86. It is also the only bus system inside the Beltway with no service on weekends or evenings. Arlington County, with a quarter of Prince George’s County’s population, has 17 ART routes, and Alexandria, with less than a fifth of Prince George’s County’s population, has 12 DASH routes.

Instead, Prince George’s County — like the District — relies on Metrobus for most of its local bus service. To understand why the county might do this, we first need to understand why jurisdictions operate their own bus services.

TheBus system map. Image by Prince George’s County.

Jurisdictions operate their own bus services for financial reasons

The creation of local bus networks, most of which were established in the 1990s, is largely a consequence of financial issues and the way in which WMATA charges jurisdictions for bus service.

Since 1997, all Metrobus routes have been classified as either regional or non-regional, based on whether they cross jurisdictional lines and whether they are considered to have regional significance. Funding for regional routes, along with funding for Metrorail, is allocated to each jurisdiction according to a formula that takes into account population, ridership, and service.

Non-regional routes, on the other hand, are treated as “belonging” to the jurisdiction they serve, and that jurisdiction is directly billed for the cost of operating the route. This system is somewhat similar to how MetroAccess paratransit service is funded: the cost of each trip is billed to the jurisdiction the rider is a resident of.

Metrobus’s operating cost per vehicle revenue hour (the cost of providing one hour of service with one bus) is significantly higher than that of any of the other bus operators in the region. This difference is partly due to operational differences, but also partially due to accounting differences since, for example, WMATA includes the cost of WMATA Transit Police in the cost of operating Metrobus, while local police departments aren’t included in the cost of operating local bus systems.

Not all of these overhead costs are passed on to jurisdictions for non-regional routes. Subsidies for non-regional routes are calculated based on “platform hours,” the total time the bus was on the road, rather than “revenue hours,” the number of hours the bus was running a route and available for passengers. In 2016, WMATA calculated that the operating cost per platform hour was $144.89, but charged jurisdictions $115.73 per platform hour for non-regional routes.

Data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database. Image by the author.

The state pays Montgomery’s and Prince George’s Metro bills

An additional factor in cost calculations is that, while the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia jurisdictions are directly responsible for their shares of the WMATA budget, for the past 20 years, the state of Maryland has paid Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties’ shares of the Metro bill.

This means that decisions about WMATA non-regional bus service in Maryland involve the state government as well as the county governments, and that if Montgomery and Prince George’s County want to provide additional bus service beyond what the state pays for, they have to do so themselves via Ride-On and TheBus.

In addition, the state subsidizes some of the cost of Ride-On and TheBus, but since these systems are cheaper to operate than paying for Metrobus non-regional service, the counties can get more service from the same amount of state money by providing the service themselves (in theory).

Non-regional bus routes are not distributed equally among jurisdictions

As mentioned before, the small size of the TheBus network makes Prince George’s County unusually reliant on non-regional Metrobus routes. Approximately 40% of the region’s non-regional bus routes operate in Prince George’s County and about 20% each operate in Fairfax County (where they are concentrated in the southeastern portion of the county, bordering Alexandria) and the District of Columbia, with the remainder in Montgomery County and Arlington.

This concentration of non-regional Metrobus routes in Prince George’s County partly makes up for the smallness of TheBus’s network. Including both non-regional Metrobus and TheBus routes, the county has 7.0 bus routes per hundred thousand residents, less than but comparable to the values in other suburban jurisdictions, which range from 7.8 in Alexandria to 10.0 in Arlington County. The number of local bus routes per hundred thousand residents is only 3.9 in DC, but this is made up for by the much greater density of Metrorail stations and regional Metrobus routes in the District.

Data from pages G-5 to G-13 of the 2018 WMATA budget.

It is worth noting that these figures are not alone sufficient to compare the quality of local bus service in each jurisdiction. In a future post in this series, other issues, such as the fraction of the population served and hours of service will be considered to make a more full comparison.

Prince George’s County does not have a formal agreement with WMATA on which areas and routes should be served by each. However, according to Semia Hackett at the county Department of Public Works and Transportation, there is an “informal delineation” that the county system “is primarily a neighborhood based service, [so] its service will be focused on connecting neighborhoods with major destinations without competing with WMATA Metrobus service.” while WMATA is responsible for providing service along major corridors with higher volumes of passengers.

A chance for improvements: Prince George’s County’s Transit Vision Plan

At present, Prince George’s County is working on a “Transit Vision Plan” to evaluate potential ways to improve transit in the county. While the plan will also consider non-bus transportation options, such as improving taxi service and building more sidewalks, and bus service provided by WMATA and the Central Maryland RTA (which serves Laurel as well as Howard and Anne Arundel Counties), it will likely focus heavily on improvements to TheBus service.

While a full draft will not be released until early May, potential recommendations have been presented at a series of public meetings around the county. Ideas so far include cutting two low-performance routes (the 35S and the 53), changes to the routings of a number of other routes, and increases in frequency on several routes. We think that bigger reforms are needed, and we’ll continue to cover those issues in this series.

In the meantime, it is still possible to submit your comments on how transportation in Prince George’s County could be improved online. In upcoming posts, we will present some of our concerns about the current status of TheBus service in Prince George’s County, and how we think service could be improved.

DW Rowlands is a human geography grad student and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website. They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.