Metro weighs the fate of the 5A
When Jake Janzen heard that Metro was once again planning to eliminate the 5A bus to Dulles International Airport, he reluctantly contemplated buying a car.
None of the alternatives to the bus ride from Rosslyn to Dulles were promising. The first Silver Line train to the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station, followed by a bus connection, wouldn’t get him there in time for his 6:30 a.m. shift at the airport. Driving would once again put him in a nightmarish commute, plus add extra expenses he and his wife hoped to avoid when they moved to Arlington two years ago.
“We are able to live without a car, and it’s great. But if they kill that route, we will be forced to buy one,” said Janzen, an airconditioning engineer at Dulles. “And who wants to drive on I-66? I absolutely don’t.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has, for the second time in two years, proposed killing the 5A and with it an important transportation link for travelers and workers such as Janzen who depend on the only bus linking the District to Dulles. On weekends, for example, when the Metro system doesn’t open until 7 a.m., the 5A is bound for the airport by 5:30 a.m.
But the bus line, with a daily ridership of roughly 1,400 passengers, has become entangled in Metro board politics centered on a dispute over who should pay for the service.
As the Metro board weighs the route’s fate this fall, it will review overwhelming public opposition to its elimination and the lingering funding question that put the bus line back on the chopping block this year.
“All we have heard from now are people who use it and don’t want it to go away. I don’t think that anybody has come in and said, ‘I really think it should go away,’ ” Metro board Chairman Mort Downey said. “It is more an issue of how best to pay for it.”
The 5A receives a special subsidy from local governments based on the share of riders who come from each jurisdiction. This year’s budget calls for an annual allocation of $990,000, according to Metro, with the District contributing $405,900, Prince George’s $188,100, Alexandria $9,900, Arlington $79,200 and Fairfax $306,900.
The funding dispute started in May after Michael Goldman, a new member who represents Maryland on the board, argued that his state should not have to pay for a bus route that starts in the District and ends in Virginia. Maryland, he noted, pays for the B30 bus that runs from the Greenbelt Metro station to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
Goldman’s position led to a heated debate among other board members, including Catherine Hudgins, a Fairfax County supervisor, who questioned why Fairfax should pay if Maryland wouldn’t. Fairfax residents, she argued, are probably taking the county’s Connector buses to Dulles, not the 5A.
The board was unable to reach an agreement.
Some board members reached last week said it might be possible to save the route, or at least part of it, given its popularity.
Downey said if the demand for service is there, “hopefully we can find a way to square the circle.”
A resolution, Downey said, may require the board to review how costs of services are shared for regional routes — which could entail modifying funding formulas that date back two decades.
A recent survey suggests that 15 percent of riders come from Maryland, Downey said. No such data is available for the BWI route, he said.
Because the BWI bus route is contained in Maryland, it is considered a non-regional route and picks up the full tab. The Dulles route, which crosses jurisdictions, is considered regional and thus the shared cost.
“We are just looking for some equity in how the two airport bus routes are treated,” Goldman said last week. “If staff can come up with some concept that provides that kind of equity and also permits the 5A to continue in some fashion, we can probably go along with what they propose.”
Other Metro board members declined to comment, and Hudgins did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
Metro wouldn’t say last week whether it will reverse its recommendation — as it did in 2013 when it also proposed killing the route. Back then, public pressure led the transit agency to back down.
A Metro spokesman said planners are expected to make a final recommendation to the board in November on this and 80 other proposed Metrobus changes.
One idea being floated is retaining the early-morning run for workers and air travelers who need to get to the airport early, but terminating or phasing out the runs throughout the day. This would reduce the cost of the route. Eliminating the route altogether would save Metro $2.3 million a year.
In making the recommendation to eliminate the route, Metro said 5A ridership has dropped since the Silver Line opened a year ago; ridership in the last fiscal year was 300,000 passengers, about 100,000 fewer compared with the previous year.
But some transit officials say ridership is not the problem, and, like riders, they would prefer to keep the route alive at least until Metro is extended to Dulles — which will occur with Phase 2 of the Silver Line.
“Unfortunately, the 5A is entangled in WMATA and regional politics,” Todd Horsley, director of Northern Virginia transit programs at the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, told a concerned 5A rider in an e-mail last month.
Horsley, who has received complaints from bus riders and has discussed the proposal with other officials, said the state does not want the service cut.
“We would not like to see a reduction in transit service,” he said in an interview. “No one I have talked to in Virginia has said that they are in favor of eliminating the 5A. . . . Overall, the feeling is let’s not change the way it’s operating right now until the Silver Line Phase 2 is operating and that will provide a connection to Dulles Airport.”
The 5A was proposed 15 years ago by the District in an effort to provide workers from the city a bus link to the Dulles corridor. The city funded the first 18 months of service, but then it became a regional route.
Metro’s interim general man-Maryland ager, Jack Requa, who managed the bus system before stepping into his current role, said last month that the agency would take public opinion into account when making a final recommendation to the board. Many of the 6,000 comments the agency has received during the public comment period on the proposed bus changes have been in support of saving the 5A, he said.
At a public hearing last month, riders urged the agency to keep the route, which runs 30 weekday round trips from L’Enfant Plaza to Dulles, with stops at Rosslyn and the Herndon-Monroe Park and Ride.
Kim Carpenter, who takes the 5:25 a.m. bus from L’Enfant to Dulles, where she manages a retail store, told board members that taking it away could cost workers their jobs.
“I catch the bus with people that put your luggage on your plane, people that check you in at the ticket counter, people that check you through security, everyone catches the bus,” Carpenter said.
Other riders say the Metro board should not punish riders for its disagreement over funding.
“The drama is over who pays for it, whether Maryland pays for it or if the Virginia jurisdictions should pick up the tab,” Janzen said. “I don’t know and I don’t care. I just depend on the bus.”
The only bus linking D.C. to Dulles is tangled in a funding dispute
Roughly 1,400 passengers a day depend on the bus, which is being considered for elimination for the second time in two years.