RIP GEORGE: F.C.’s Bus System Gets the Heave-Ho

GEORGE is dead. The City of Falls Church’s first-ever attempt at the formation and operation of its own bus system covering its 2.2 square miles came to an ignominious end Monday night when the City Council voted 6-1 not to continue any aspect of the system beyond September 30.

The Council, in a hyper-cost conscious mode that included turning down over $4 million in federal funds to cling tightly to $2 million it originally proposed to borrow for affordable housing last week, this Monday would not agree to fund a further scaled back GEORGE, and the vote wasn’t even close.

Some observers noted that the Council’s mental inflexibility, an unwillingness reflected in the options it agreed to consider last month that ignored calls from the Chamber of Commerce and others to alter the mission of the system, guaranteed its termination.

The calls were “re-purpose” the system from being an underutilized commuter neighborhood door-to-Metro service to serving as an economic development tool, a shuttle to bring prospective customers from the Metro station to downtown businesses like the State Theatre.

The only opponent to ending the system was Councilman David Snyder. A member of a number of regional transportation organizations on behalf of the City, he decried the defunding as “shortsighted, anti-environment, anti-worker and a “serious mistake.” He said that the City’s regional transit partners “are watching us,” and their willingness to support us in the development of public transit “will be zip, nada, nothing in the near or longer term future.”

But the Council’s decision Monday night will now result in the City’s sale of all four of its GEORGE buses to Arlington and the termination of all intra-city routes by the end of next month.

The push to terminate the system was nothing new. It was seriously considered by the City Council in its spring 2009 crafting of its annual budget, with the formation of a GEORGE Task Force to recommend efficiencies and cost-saving alterations.

The high cost of operating the system combined with its low ridership meant that the City taxpayers were subsidizing riders by as much as $8 per ride.

But nothing beyond a proposed fare increase came from the effort, and this spring, City Manager Wyatt Shields, faced with a record revenue shortfall, recommended the termination of the system, overall.

GEORGE proponents, ranging from citizens who use the system to others with a more philosophical commitment to public transit, convinced the Council to give it a modicum of life through the first quarter of the new fiscal year, which began July 1.

The idea was to make one last stab at a long-term sustainability solution to the system. But that idea was met by no effective ideas for doing just that, except for the one by the Chamber of Commerce that the Council was not willing to entertain.

GEORGE originally came into being in the late 1990s when the federal government went looking to spend some money on a prototype electric hybrid form of public transit. It found in Falls Church the perfect experimental size and proximity to its corridors of power.

Falls Church agreed to ante up a portion of the funds, although most came from the feds, to launch the first two years of the program.

The name, GEORGE, was chosen to honor George Mason, the author of the Bill of Rights for whom the City holds a certain special affinity and as an acronym cobbled together by a youthful resident referring to it as a “green energy option.”

The program’s launch was delayed by the inability of the company contracted to built the electric-diesel hybrid engines to get them to work.

When they thought they’d finally got it right, the buses went into service, only to shut down for an extended period when the engines failed once and for all.

In the meantime, the City agreed it wanted to keep the system going, even if the original purpose for it, as an experiment in a new energy-conserving operating system, failed. The four buses were retooled to run on the increasingly-common clean diesel engines, and when the federal money ran out, the City was saddled with keeping an ordinary local bus line going without regard for the degree to which it overlapped existing bus services provided by Metro.