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Metro’s shuttle buses are handling crowds well during the Yellow and Blue Line shutdown and ridership is higher than expected, upbeat Metro staff said when they briefed the agency’s Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC) last Wednesday. After an initial ridership surge, staff say the shuttles have ‘settled down’ to carrying 125,000 trips per week.

The six Yellow and Blue Line stations in Virginia south of National Airport closed on May 25 to allow Metro and its contractor, Kiewit, to rebuild station platforms and perform other work in the area. Five bus bridges were set up to temporarily replace train service until September 9, when the stations are currently scheduled to reopen.

Jim Hamre, Metro’s director of bus planning and scheduling, told the RAC that the shuttles were performing ‘great’ and actually carrying more people than the agency had originally expected. Hamre said the agency had done initial planning to come up with ridership estimates and, combined with survey results from riders, “We had anticipated that we would be carrying about 18,000 people a day.” Based on the original planning figures, Metro set up a bus shuttle network with 65 contract, Metro, and DASH buses.

Hamre noted that on May 28, the first weekday of the shutdown, Metro believes the shuttle buses carried ‘somewhere close to 30,000 people,’ so many so that ‘we actually lost track.’ Enough unexpected riders were taking the shuttle that day that Metro was ‘pulling buses left and right off of regular [bus lines]’ in order to keep up with the demand.

Thirty Metrobuses were taken off of regular routes or pulled out of storage to supplement the buses supplied by Metro’s shuttle contractor. Additional coach buses and drivers couldn’t be brought in earlier due to the time of year, Hamre noted: “That is the peak time of tourist season, so our contractors didn’t have resources they could bring to bear, they were all committed to trips to Miami or the high school tour to Washington, DC and other places.”

Twenty additional contracted shuttle buses arrived on June 17, nine on June 24, and an additional 31 were added the first week of July. After carrying 148,000 trips the first week and 152,000 the second, Hamre noted the shuttle system has “settled down” to carrying a sustained 125,000 trips per week since.

Metro’s two Express routes from Franconia to the Pentagon and Huntington to the Pentagon have proven to be big hits, said Hamre. He described the Franconia Express bus as the “big hauler,” carrying almost 7,000 trips per day. The Huntington Express ties with the Blue Local route for third with 5,600 trips per day, after the Yellow Local which carries about 6,200 trips per day. The Landmark Shuttle carries 900-1,000 per day, according to Hamre’s data.

Metro tries a new communication strategy

Hamre and Metro communications specialist Marc Bowman highlighted the Platform Improvement Project website (which, loosely-defined, could also be called a ‘blog’) which Bowman said “Metro’s never really done before.” The agency has posted information about the shutdown approximately once per week since the shutdown began on the project’s progress webpage consisting of information ranging from historic photos of the impacted stations, modified eligibility requirements for MetroAccess, and progress on the tile and granite edge re-installation itself.

Bowman also provided the RAC with some statistics he said showed the agency had high levels of awareness and trust about the shutdown from the public. “Almost 99%” of people Metro surveyed were aware of the shutdown before it started, which Bowman believed was “quite astonishing.”

More people knew about the Yellow and Blue Line shutdown than they did of last year’s Red Line shutdown at Rhode Island Avenue, and two out of three people said they trust that the shutdown was necessary, even more so when Bowman or other staff mentioned it was for safety and accessibility.

Communications and support by Metro for Metro teams was an element of the project which the agency quickly realized they hadn’t given enough thought to. According to Hamre, the agency had to do things like create procedures and programs for ensuring restrooms were available for support staff at all stations and on the bus routes; create a water, Gatorade, and ice distribution program to ensure staff and volunteers stay hydrated; and create a maintenance, inspection, and repair program for the temporary bus stops being used during the shutdown for whenever they’re damaged.

“One of the realizations is we weren’t really aware of how much continuous effort was going to be needed just to sustain the facility people to be able to support the service to support customers,” noted Hamre, but he said the agency would learn as it moves forward through this and other major repair programs.

A reminder of upcoming shutdowns

The six Blue and Yellow Line stations are set to reopen on September 9, but some work may require single-tracking afterwords. Metro says the Van Dorn station “may remain under construction through October 4, requiring single tracking after September 8,” which would reduce Blue Line train frequencies and potentially impact the Yellow Line too. In addition, single-tracking at Huntington and Franconia-Springfield may continue “through early December,” although Metro says impacts to train service from that “can be minimized.”

The Yellow and Blue Line shutdown is only the first of several which Metro has planned through 2021. Twenty total stations are scheduled to have their platforms rebuilt either with shutdowns or single-tracking, with eight set to occur during 2020.

While all Yellow and Green Line stations north of Fort Totten will be shut down next summer for rebuild, Metro also plans to do similar for all stations between Vienna and East Falls Church. No schedule has yet been made available for when these projects will occur.

Seven additional stations on the Blue and Orange lines are scheduled for platform rebuilds during 2021.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Marc Bowman’s name.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.