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Imagine if you wanted to travel to and from a place within Vienna or its near environs and you could summon a bus to take you there.

Vienna Town Council members on Sept. 30 discussed the possibility of applying for grants for a “microtransit” pilot program, which would enable people to use such a service.

The program would operate similar to Uber, Lyft or another of the ride-sharing programs that have become popular in numerous countries. Only instead of having a privately owned vehicle pull up to their location, passengers might have to walk a block or two to catch the microtransit bus at a convenient point.

The buses would have flexible routing and scheduling and could have their service areas limited via “geo-fencing,” said Vienna Public Works Director Michael Gallagher. The goal would be to extend the effectiveness of available transit service and create more efficient routes.

Fares would be low – $1 or $2 or perhaps free – and would require heavy public subsidization, Gallagher said. If a third party ran the service, the cost to the town might run between $200,000 and $400,000 annually, he said.

Several state and regional organizations offer grants for such initiatives, but their application periods are limited – and some are occurring right now, Gallagher said.

For example, the Northern Virginia Transportation Council’s application period  runs from October through December, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit’s time frame is between December and January, and that of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments goes between February and April, he said.

Council members expressed cautious enthusiasm for the concept, with some wanting more information before applying for grants.

“I would rather take a measured approach to get this right,” said Council member Douglas Noble, who worried there would not be sufficient time to properly study the matter in advance of the approaching application cycle.

Gallagher said the concept was relatively new, so not much information is available yet about such programs. Several major cities across the country have begun microtransit initiatives, including nearby jurisdictions such as the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, Md.

Council member Nisha Patel favored getting the ball rolling.

“I don’t think we should shy away from an opportunity because we feel limited in our funding,” she said.

Patel used such a service twice in New York City, being ferried about in a Mercedes minivan. One of the rides was brisk and efficient, the other less so because the driver spoke only a foreign language and kept stopping at green lights, she said.

“I thought it was great,” Patel said of her overall experience. “It’s not a bad idea to explore.”

Noble said the town should study the current demand for transit service and ensure that any microtransit program did not take away demand from other services that need it.

“Is there enough demand in Vienna for something beyond Uber, if it’s aggregating trips to go to places we want to go?” he asked, noting that such a program likely would make a major dent in the town’s operating budget. “Let’s have the conversation, but let’s be mindful of the opportunity costs and trade-offs of that conversation.”

The Council will review the microtransit concept again later this fall as part of its discussion on multi-modal transportation options.

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