F.C. Wants Arlington, Not WMATA, to Run GEORGE

Scaled-Back Bus Line Asks New Operator

Falls Church City Manager Wyatt Shields was in the process of crafting a “letter of intent” to the Arlington County Department of Transportation when he picked up the phone to speak to the News-Press late yesterday.

The letter, for which he’d gotten the go-ahead from the Falls Church City Council Monday, will ask Arlington to take over the operation of F.C.’s scaled-back GEORGE bus system as of July 1.

It is the first step in reducing the cost of operating GEORGE, which became a major bone of contention during the just-completed F.C. budget deliberations. Data showed that the system, operating within the City’s 2.2 square mile area, cost taxpayers over $600,000 to serve what turned out to be only 70,000 rides in the past year.

Faced with having to make deep cuts in the City’s budget due to a recession-driven precipitous drop in tax revenues, Shields had proposed de-funding GEORGE, altogether. But that led to a lot of objections both from within the community and on the City Council.

Subsequently, City Hall learned it had the option of drawing on the state and Northern Virginia Transportation Commission trust funds for about $300,000, and the Council agreed to use that to operate GEORGE for another year in a scaled back form at half the past years’ cost.

So, the reduced-service GEORGE will continue to operate its routes during morning and evening rush hours at no added cost to City real estate taxpayers. The length of service of the rush hour routes will be cut, and the mid-day 26-A route will be eliminated. The exact parameters of the retained routes have yet to be worked out.

But while GEORGE is being given a one-year reprieve, the City Council will soon appoint and assign a task force to study the viability of the system for the long term. It will be asked to conclude its study in time to decide whether or not, or at what level, GEORGE should be funded in the next budget.

F.C. Council members stressed at a work session Monday that making GEORGE work from now on will require, among other things, a lot of publicity.

Shields got the OK Monday to take the first step of shifting the operations of the bus system from the Washington Metro Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) to the operators of the smaller Arlington Transit System (ART) serving Falls Church’s immediate but larger neighbor to the east.

Shields said he did not want to suggest anything negative about WMATA’s operation of the GEORGE system, but that there would be added benefits from the proximity of Arlington to Falls Church, as well as a lower cost to F.C. of funding the operation.

The process of Arlington formally agreeing to the terms of the new arrangement begins with Shields’ “letter of intent” that will go in the mail this week. But Shields said he would be shocked if Arlington did not accept the terms, since Falls Church and Arlington have been working “hand in glove” on the notion for months at the administrative level.

As in the case of the current relationship with WMATA, Arlington would provide the drivers and all the maintenance requirements to operate GEORGE. Falls Church’s only role, essentially, would be to provide the buses, themselves and to design or modify the routes. The new relationship will become official when a “memorandum of understanding” is signed off on by both parties. It all has to be completed by this July 1.

This is the second time that GEORGE has been scaled back since F.C. took over responsibility for funding the system in 2004. Originally, the system included weekend and evening service that was removed mid-decade.

When first envisioned, GEORGE was a federally-funded prototype experiment in the use of environmentally-progressive electric hybrid buses. After many fits and starts, the technology was deemed a failure, the buses were converted to clean diesel, the federal money dried up, and the City assumed the full burden of its cost of operation.

The City Council is expected to hammer out the details of its plans for a GEORGE task force at its meeting this Monday night.