The future of Falls Church’s GEORGE bus system beyond September took a major turn for the worse this week, when the Falls Church City Council took a hard look its options for funding the continuation of the service at its work session Monday night.
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, even those otherwise sympathetic to maintaining the service at a diminished level blanched.
The Council will take up the subject at its regular business meeting this Monday night that will include an opportunity for public comment. GEORGE has contingent funding only through the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which means that for it to continue beyond the end of September, the Council would need to find and appropriate additional funds.
While precise numbers await further study by City staff, City Manager Wyatt Shields Monday 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 contract 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 Monday, 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, perhaps from a residential commuter service to a specifically economic development purpose.
Some have suggested the system be converted from a commuter service linking the West and East Falls Church Metro stations to residential neighborhoods in the City to a shuttle system connecting the Metro stations to popular downtown locations, like the State Theatre and Mad Fox Brewing Company.
City staffer Wendy Sanford said that a citizen task force created to study options for GEORGE had spent considerable time studying that and other options.
But Sanford said that such a “re-purposing” of GEORGE in the current economic environment might be too risky, even though it would be designed to boost the City’s economic bottom line.
Council member Robin Gardner said she was adamant in her call 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 need to pass the full House and then go to the Senate. 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.
While the Council will have GEORGE on its business meeting agenda for Monday, it is preparing to issue a public notice of a potential “change in service” in the system in time for a public hearing at its Aug. 9 meeting, when a final Council decision will be made to either fund or allow the system to die will be made.