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GEORGE’s Outlook is Grim After Council Mulls Funding Options

The future of Falls Church’s GEORGE bus system beyond September took a major turn for the worse tonight, when the Falls Church City Council took a hard look its options for funding the continuation of the service, realizing that dipping into the City’s Metro Trust Fund to keep it operating, at even a diminished level, would wind up costing City taxpayers plenty to refurbish the depleted fund within three years.

While precise numbers await further study by City staff, City Attorney Wyatt Shields said that the combined annual City contribution to the WMATA (Metro rail and bus) fund, on top of subsidizing GEORGE, would require significant dollars that could be raised only through substantial tax rate increases on City residents. That view was echoed by Steve Yaffe of Arlington County, who’s been the go-between in F.C.’s contracts to have Arlington operate GEORGE.

Meanwhile, while fares have increased for GEORGE from 50 cents to $1.50, ridership is down, even taking into account the FY09 elimination of a non-performing midday route. On the two existing routes, one to the East and the other to the West Falls Church Metro, ridership dropped between FY09 and FY10 from 2,803 to 2,631 on the East route, and from 2,043 to 1,574 on the West route.

Those on Council tonight, including Johannah Barry and ira Kaylin, who hoped to keep some even more scaled back version of GEORGE operational, recognized the need for a significant “re-purposing” of the system, from a residential commuter service to a specifically economic development purpose.
But City staffer Wendy Sanford said that such a “re-purposing” in the current economic environment might be too risky, even though the City needs to boost its economic bottom line.

Council member Robin Gardner said she was adamant in calling for an end to GEORGE, and Lawrence Webb tended to agree. Mayor Nader Baroukh, while expressing sympathy for keeping the system, by the end of the funding discussion seemed to indicate he’d not favor any plan that involved a taxpayer subsidy.

Shields told the Council of the hope for another $728,000 of federal dollars that may be coming to the City, but that awaits Congressional action in a year when the appetite for “earmarked” spending is at a low ebb. It has passed only a House committee so far, and would ndeecd to pass the full House and then go to the Senate, and even if it cleared those hurdles, the City would not be able to count on the funds until long after key decisions about GEORGE need to be made.

The Council will have GEORGE on its business meeting agenda for Monday, July 26, and then is prepared to issue a public notice of a potential change in service by the system in time for a public hearing at its Aug. 9 meeting, when a final Council decision will be made.