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WMATA Slates

A flurry of public concern in the City of Falls Church over reports published in the Washington Post last week that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) may terminate the City’s “George” bus system appears unfounded. The fact is that Metro doesn’t fund “George” in the first place. The City does.

 “Including ‘George’ and other locally-funded bus routes in the WMATA report was flat out a mistake,” said F.C. Acting City Manager Wyatt Shields. He said that WMATA has acknowledged what was probably a clerical error by “someone way down in the organization,” Shields said, but he has not heard back yet on whether or not WMATA will officially strike the references to ‘George’ from the report, or produce a revised version before calling for public hearings.

The City of Falls Church is the sole funding source for “George” now to the tune of about $380,000 annually.

The WMATA study listed 10 or so Northern Virginia bus routes that are not performing according to its standards, and proposed cutting them to save money. The “George” routes included in the report were characterized as the “worst performing” in the whole group, but Rob Puentes, a member of the Falls Church Planning Commission, asserts that was based on a “flawed analysis.”

 “Certainly, with all the new development now going on, and the volume of new residents it will be bringing, the need for ‘George’ will be vital to the City,” he said.

 “George” is a bus line with two basic routes restricted to the 2.2-mile area of the City of Falls Church that connect neighborhoods and downtown locations with the two Metro rail stations on either end of town.

It was created by combined federal, state, WMATA and Northern Virginia Transportation Commission funding with the aim of operating on a small scale a public transportation system utilizing experimental electric or electric hybrid fueling methods. But the process initiated in 1996 did not result in a bus system until 2003 due to a string contract disputes and bankruptcies, including the fact that the earliest bus models delivered to Falls Church for use simply did not work.

When the initial buses utilizing the new technology failed to pass muster in the late 1990s, the City and its state, regional and federal partners agreed to continue the program using buses fueled by more conventional “clean air” diesel fuel.

As the outside support phased out according to plan, the City had the option of picking up the total cost for its continued operation in 2002. It determined to scale back the routes and the times, focusing them on commuter rush hour times.

The City Council here determined to subsidize the routes in anticipation of the most critical role they will play once a lot of the new commercial and residential development that is now in the pipeline is completed.

The WMATA report’s analysis, which Puentes argued was “unfair” when compared with the entire rest of the Metro bus system, found that “George” failed in four out of five key measures it used to gauge efficiency:

Its route carries less than 300 passengers per day, carries less than 1.3 passengers per revenue mile, and carries less than 10 passengers per trip. The subsidy per passenger exceeds $4.80 and the cost recovery for the route is less than 12.4%.