Time to Reset County Policy on Local Fixed Route Buses

Time to Reset County Policy on Local Fixed Route Buses

By Hon. Ken Reid.

Loudoun County government is by and large lean and mean and provides very good value for the taxpayers. But one expenditure in the proposed FY 2018 County budget that defies Loudoun’s fiscally conservative tradition, due to its incredibly poor return on investment, is the $3-$4 million for local fixed route buses.

I am not referring to the long-haul commuter buses which bring passengers into DC and Arlington daily.  This excellent service is about 70% fee based, meaning only 30% comes from local and state subsidies.  The subsidy has come from a 2% regional gas tax levied, which will have to be obligated to Metro once the Silver Line starts service in a few years.

Instead, I am referring to those little white jitneys with the big red “Loudoun Transit” logo that serve Leesburg, Sterling, Countryside, parts of Dulles South and Ashburn.  These local “fixed route” buses are 94 percent subsidized and are losing passengers.

The gas tax also has subsidized these local buses, and until 2013, they got federal aid.  But for the first time in the FY 2018 proposed County budget, which is now before the Board for consideration, the local buses will be financed by “local tax funding” – in other words, ALL taxpayers will be subsidizing this service, which has low utility.

Here are some examples based on December 2016 county numbers:

The “Dulles South Connector” attracted just 11 riders a day, costing about $22,000 a month, or about $90 per ride.

The “Ashburn Connector” bus – which is proposed to be combined with another route — attracts but 42 passengers each day, but costs some $16,000 a month.

A “Countryside Connector” bus had but 68 riders (a high of 95 during the year) and costs well over $17,000 a month.

The “Atlantic Connector” bus carries but 60 people a day.  It costs more than $17,000 a month.

In Leesburg, a bus from the Rust Library to the Government Center has only 64 passengers a day, costing $16,000 a month.

Most routes are costing about $13 to $22 per ride – much more than a cab or Uber ride in many cases.

And the ridership numbers are down from when I served on the board and issued a three-year, $12 million contract to MV Transportation to operate them using gas taxes.

At our Transit Summit in May 2015, I pointed out the paltry patronage of the local buses and the Board agreed to direct County staff to look at alternative models such as engaging the non-profit community or looking at taxis. In response, County staff chose to hire a “mobility manager” through a federal grant shared with Fairfax County, and that person is still not on staff due to a holdup in Fairfax.  Instead of finding alternatives, the cost of this heavily subsidized local bus system is now going to be borne by every property tax owner in the County!

Indeed, the proposed budget calls for cutting some routes and combining others, saving $814,000.  The County is now soliciting comments on its Transit Development Plan for 2017-2022.  But since losing the federal aid in 2013, some $8 million in the gas tax funds has been blown on these buses.

A number of our residents need this kind of service – notably, the disabled, some elderly, and folks without cars or driver’s licenses.  However, we are not serving their needs on nights and weekends, as most of the routes only run from 7 am to 7 pm. Monday through Friday.

At $16 a ride, it would seem to be more prudent for the County to subsidize the passenger, and not the bus system.  The passenger can then use the subsidy for a cab, Uber, or get a ride from a nonprofit.  Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers, the Red Cross and ECHO are examples of non-profits with vehicles that might be helpful to reduce the cost per ride.   The County could insure their drivers much as it provides blanket coverage to volunteers who use their own vehicles to deliver meals to seniors.

In order to serve low income areas and not run afoul of any federal laws that may require the County to service low income and minority areas with transit, the Board could just run the buses in the AM and PM, and fill the mid-day gaps with nonprofits or Uber and cabs.

Is this legal and feasible?  Only the Supervisors can direct their staff to check, and they have not done that — nor have they discussed the long-term precedent of creating another entitlement program born by all taxpayers, and which does not serve the needs of the larger transit-dependent community.

Ken Reid is a member of the Leesburg Town Council, serves on the Loudoun County Transit Advisory Board, and is a former Leesburg District Supervisor.