Arlington Transit (ART) bus service

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

So far, so good, as the Arlington Transit (ART) system has a new contractor settling in.

“The transition to ART’s new service provider – First Transit – has gone well during the initial weeks,” County Manager Mark Schwartz told the Sun Gazette.

The county government on Dec. 29 switched transit providers after inking a five-year deal with Ohio-based First Transit. The existing transit provider, National Express, has been providing service under contract since 2009, but county officials had voiced concerns about on-time reliability and other factors.

The new contractor will be monitored on the same criteria, Schwartz said.

“Improved operational reliability is our top priority, and we’ll be monitoring the contractor’s performance to ensure they provide high-quality bus service,” he said.

The county government has set an on-time target of 80 percent, but the rate of 73 percent in the most recent quarter was below that and below the rate of 78 percent a year before.

There are multiple reasons, Schwartz said in a December briefing to County Board members, including delays as buses have to navigate construction zones.

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.

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

(There will be no free lunch for county taxpayers, who likely will be asked to provide higher subsidies for the bus service in the coming year. One major factor: The robust local economy is making it difficult to recruit and retain drivers at previous wage levels.)

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.

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

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