Anna Sharma has seen her fair share of changes to bus service in Prince William County since the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission launched decades ago.
She says she’s been riding the bus between Woodbridge and Washington, D.C., dating back to PRTC’s beginnings in 1986, all the while watching bus routes and fare prices change.
Lately, she’s been a bit mystified by some of the changes to PRTC’s service, particularly as she tries to traverse the county.
“They still need to have buses ride later, especially the cross-county lines,” Sharma said after stepping off a bus at the Chinn Park Regional Library. “Everybody needs it.”
Indeed, PRTC decided last year to simultaneously reduce local service around Prince William and raise fares by about 5 percent across the board. The system was facing even more substantial cuts until county supervisors agreed to send an additional $6 million per year to PRTC, on top of the money each one of the six localities served by the system collects in gas taxes to support bus service.
By the numbers
- Total fiscal 2018 budget: $60 million
- $36 million in operating costs
- $24 million in capital expenses
- 5 percent fare increase averaged across all lines over six years
- Each locality helps fund PRTC by collecting a 2.1 percent tax on motor fuels
- Manassas fell $250,000 short of its share of PRTC fees through its fuel tax and will use general fund money instead.
- In fiscal 2017, PRTC carried an average of 7,600 OmniRide passengers each day and another 2,750 passengers per day on OmniLink local buses.
- Since 2009, PRTC has cut overall service by more than 20 percent and raised fares by more than 35 percent.
But that wasn’t exactly a new development for PRTC—since 2009, the system has cut overall service by 20 percent and raised fares by more than 35 percent — and the service is set to raise fares by another 5 percent in its newly proposed budget for fiscal 2018, though it will avoid any further service cuts.
So while the commission may not be facing the same sort of existential crisis as Metrorail to the north, its leaders still say PRTC will need to undergo some serious changes in how it secures funding and serves its riders to adapt to the changing realities of the Northern Virginia region.
“This current budget very much represents a holding pattern, after we took some serious cuts and fare increases last year,” said County Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles and a member of PRTC’s Board of Commissioners. “But now we need to think about how we reinvent what PRTC is.”
As PRTC’s new executive director, Robert Schneider is likely the man best positioned to lead that transformation. He traces the system’s current funding woes to a very simple source: the inherent difficulty in largely relying on a 2.1 percent fuel tax from each locality to fund a public transportation service.
“When the price of fuel is high, lots of money pours in, and tons of people want to ride with you,” Schneider said. “But that means the exact opposite when the price of fuel drops. People are more willing to drive, and they’re less willing to hand you money to offset your expenses. It’s very elastic.”
Accordingly, dropping gas prices the last few years have created a real conundrum for the system, leading to the need to consistently cut service and bump up fares. This time around, commuters on PRTC’s “OmniRide” service will likely see one of the largest price bumps, with SmarTrip card users experiencing a 6.15 percent fare increase, closely followed by a roughly 5.9 percent increase for anyone hoping to buy a day pass on the system’s local “OmniLink” buses.
Schneider hopes raising fares incrementally will be a better option than simply waiting a few years before telling riders, “we need an increase of 15 percent to keep up,” but he’s no huge fan of the change, for obvious reasons. Joyce Embrey, PRTC’s director of finance and administration, says staff “always anticipates losing some riders” with any fare increase, but she added that they aren’t expecting any major drop-off from the change.
“I do not believe there will be any drop-off, because it is still the most cost-effective way for people to get from one destination to another,” Pam Sebesky, a Manassas city council member and the secretary of PRTC’s board, wrote in an email. “But fuel taxes have not filled the gaps for transportation funding for years, and this is an abdication of leadership from the General Assembly.”
The question of action in Richmond hangs over any discussion of the PRTC’s future. Local lawmakers have long pressed their counterparts in the General Assembly to pass a “gas tax floor” for the region, so that revenues for transportation services like PRTC aren’t so directly tied to complex outside forces like the global oil market.
Just this year, Sebesky’s own city fell $250,000 short of its set contribution to PRTC due to flagging fuel revenues. Manassas is set to make up for that deficit by using general fund money instead, but Sebesky noted that’s still contingent on the city council approving its proposed budget later this month.
“A floor on the fuel tax is a necessity,” Manassas Park Mayor Jeanette Rishell, and the vice chairman of PRTC’s board, wrote in an email. “The ability to serve the public is at risk. This means that vulnerable populations, who have no other means of transportation to go to work, the doctor or get groceries, will be negatively impacted.”
Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge and chairman of PRTC’s board, says PRTC leaders are “keeping our fingers crossed” that a report currently being developed by the state policymakers at the Commonwealth Transportation Board will recommend just such a tax floor to state lawmakers. But Nohe does not foresee any “big move toward that change” in Richmond after the legislature again rejected the measure in its 2017 session.
Luckily, Schneider is less certain that a gas-tax floor is necessary to grow the service going forward. He feels that “putting all your eggs in one basket” when it comes to revenue is hardly a sustainable solution, and he would like to move toward a more diversified approach.
“It might mean a little bit of everything is a bit more stable,” Schneider said. “Maybe it’s a blend of general fund money [from each locality], the existing fuel tax, along with a piece of the sales and use tax?”
But Schneider cautions that finding a more stable revenue stream doesn’t necessarily mean that PRTC will simply restore service it cut in years past, because some routes “just weren’t sustainable.” Instead, he hopes to find new ways to grow the service’s ridership, then use the new funding to enable those changes.
“We need to look at it as a community and say, ‘These are routes that are unassailable,’ and ‘These need to be better,’” Schneider said. “We commit to making sure those are consistently funded, then how do we backfill that money?”
Principi and Schneider agree that enticing more riders isn’t as simple as adding more bus routes — instead, the PRTC board is working to finalize a strategic plan that will guide how the system evolves to meet the changing needs of commuters.
“We can’t just have a 42-foot bus to serve three people,” Principi said. “It may be a contract with Uber and Lyft to go from your bus stop to your front door, it might be a bike or car share. We need to think outside the bus.”
Schneider thinks PRTC could tailor its options based on the area — he points out ride-sharing companies like Uber might thrive in Woodbridge or Old Town Manassas, but not in, say, Brentsville — and make service more “flexible” overall. In all, Principi is hoping to double the percentage of county residents who currently use the service, moving from 5 percent to 10 percent over the coming years.
But those changes are likely still a long way off, with Principi most immediately focused on finalizing a new budget this June. The new spending plan may not resolve all of PRTC’s problems just yet, but the system’s leaders are trying to stay squarely focused on the future to attract more riders as loyal as Anna Sharma.
“We can no longer be in mode of constantly playing catch up; we need to get ahead of the transportation curve,” Nohe said. “But first, we need to define what the future is going to be.”