Arlington Transit (ART) bus service

The Arlington government offers Arlington Transit (ART) bus service through a contract with a private provider. (Arlington government photo)

Arlington leaders say they hope a change in management of the Arlington Transit (ART) bus service will lead to improved on-time performance . . . but it may come at a price to local taxpayers.

The county government on Dec. 29 will switch transit providers, having inked a five-year deal with Ohio-based First Transit to operate the local bus service. The existing transit provider, National Express, has been providing service under contract since 2009.

County Manager Mark Schwartz said on-time performance and other factors were among the reasons for making the switch.

“We have not be providing the kind of service that Arlingtonians are used to or what they should get,” he told County Board members on Dec. 17.

The county government has set an on-time target of 80 percent, but the current rate of 73 percent falls short – and is down from 78 percent a year before.

There are multiple reasons, including delays as buses have to navigate construction zones. Buses that reach and depart stops ahead of schedule and are not counted as being on time.

(County Board Vice Chairman Libby Garvey was somewhat incredulous that buses don’t wait for the appointed time to depart stops. “Those bother me more than being late,” she said.)

County officials acknowledged that not all the shortfalls in service in recent years could be laid at the feet of the contractor, and promised more attention to detail, themselves, going forward.

The new contractor manages several hundred transit systems across the nation, including Prince William County’s OmniRide. That brought a smile to the face of County Board member Katie Cristol, who said that bus system has a good reputation.

“I’m certainly hopeful,” Cristol said.

The changeover will include new uniforms and some new personnel, as there will be “a deepening of staff at all levels,” said William Jones, the transit-services manager of the Arlington government. There also will be some new buses, although those previously had been ordered and are not directly connected to the switch. (The county government owns all ART buses and maintenance facilities.)

Schedule changes will be considered in coming months, but will not see implementation until mid-2021 at the earliest.

ART service dates to the 1990s, having been established in part to offer local control and lower costs than relying on Metrobus service for exclusively intra-county routes. For the first five months of the county government’s current fiscal year, the network attracted 1.3 million riders, an increase of 6.7 percent from the same period a year before.

County staff said the new contract requires the contractor to hit specific performance targets or face “deductions” taken out of monthly payments. In response to a query from County Board Chairman Christian Dorsey, staff said there is a provision for the contract to be canceled if certain targets are not met.

Despite the lower-than-desired timeliness rate, riders of the ART system seem to be generally pleased, according to a passenger-satisfaction survey conducted earlier in 2019.

Eighty percent of ART riders said they were “very likely” to continue using it as their main commuting option, compared to 70 percent for those who primarily use Metrorail, 69 percent for Metrobus, 56 percent for driving and 52 percent for walking.

Of riders who stopped using the system, it was more likely to be a change in life circumstances rather than a dislike for the product that led them elsewhere, the survey revealed.

Bus services traditionally require significant subsidies – most recoup only 30 to 40 percent of operating costs (and even less of overall costs, including capital expenses) at the farebox. And the robust local economy is not helping matters, as staff becomes harder and more expensive to hire and retain.

Schwartz acknowledged that taxpayers could have to pony up more in subsidies, saying he would bring specifics to the board as part of the fiscal 2021 budget season that kicks off with presentation of his draft budget in February.

“You’ll hear more about that,” he said.

But for now, board member Erik Gutshall said he was hopeful things would be “getting back . . . to the way it should be.”

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