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A Fairfax Connector bus leaves the Dunn Loring Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax Connector is set to start its electric bus pilot program by the end of the year.

The county-run bus service plans to introduce eight electric buses by December, according to a presentation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ transportation committee last week.

Phase one of the pilot program will run out of the West Ox bus division, which serves routes in the western and central portion of the county. Initially, electric buses will be tested on four routes. Phase two is expected to begin in 2023 and will include four additional buses on routes in the southern portion of the county.

No exact timetable was given for how long the pilot program is anticipated to last, but it will likely follow other neighboring localities and run about two years.

Planned routes for the Fairfax Connector electric bus pilot (via Fairfax County)

The hope is to transition the entire Fairfax Connector fleet to 100% zero emission buses by 2035. This deadline is based on the county’s established goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2040.

Staff identified several challenges that they will closely monitor, including ensuring there’s no reduction in service as a result of the transition. Several supervisors noted during the meeting that slower service, a reduction of routes, or constant maintenance taking buses offline could lead to fewer riders.

There are also technology limits to consider and whether the electrical grid will meet the energy requirements needed for large bus fleets.

According to the county’s Chief of Transit Dwayne Pelfrey, two thirds of current Fairfax Connector routes exceed the battery capability of electric buses. Coupled with potential issues with cold weather and hills, like Alexandria experienced late last year, electric buses may not completely meet the needs of the Fairfax Connector just yet.

That, in turn, could push potential riders back to single-occupancy vehicles, negating the emission reductions that many hope electric buses will provide.

Pelfrey also noted that obtaining buses has been increasingly difficult between supply chain issues and manufacturers not being ready to “pivot” to producing electric vehicles.

The used bus market is difficult to navigate as well, though the county did purchase 10 used buses out of North Carolina that will be transitioning to electric and 12 hybrid buses from WMATA.

A rendering of what a Fairfax Connector electric bus might look like (via Fairfax County)

Considering the county’s goals and the current price of gasoline, though, staff and board members believe the issues are worth navigating. While capital and infrastructure costs may be higher for electric buses, fuel and maintenance costs would be significantly lower over a 12-year period, according to a graph presented by staff.

The county is also exploring using hydrogen as fuel, but that technology remains expensive and more costly than electricity.

The county has already started creating infrastructure in preparation for the pilot to begin in about six months. Electric chargers arrived in April and are currently being installed, a process expected to be completed within the month.

“We are just doing simply plug-in chargers,” Pelfrey said. “When we transition full garages…we will have to do something much, much more complicated from a construction and power standpoint.”

The county’s electric buses are expected to start being manufactured late next month, received by October, and put on the road by December.

Fairfax Connector is the largest bus system in Virginia with a fleet of more than 300 buses providing nearly 18,000 rides a day.

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A Metrobus at the West Falls Church Metro station (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax County is expanding its student Metrobus pass program to four new schools in the fall, letting more students ride the bus for free.

Starting in September, students at Annandale High School, Falls Church High School, Marshall High School, and Davis Center will be able to get a pass that allows them to ride Fairfax Connector, the City of Fairfax CUE, and the Metrobus for free.

The bus pass can only be used on certain routes in Northern Virginia and in between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The county launched a program in 2015 letting all Fairfax County Public School students ride Fairfax Connector at no cost. A year later, the City of Fairfax CUE was added to that program. In 2018, a pilot program was approved allowing students at Justice High School to also ride certain Metrobus routes for free.

The program is intended to give students more independence as they go to and from school, participate in after-school activities, and work jobs.

The Metrobus pilot is now ramping up with a memorandum of understanding going before the Board of Supervisors later this month. The county is also working to hire a new coordinator to oversee the program and order new cards to distribute to students.

A launch event will be held at Marshall High School in September.

Since the program began more than seven years ago, students have taken over 2 million trips on local buses, according to data presented by staff at the board’s transportation committee meeting on Tuesday (June 14).

Since April of this year, students have made up nearly 8% of all Fairfax Connector ridership.

“Students are proving to be some of our most loyal customer base,” Kala Quintana, Fairfax Connector’s head of marketing, said.

For the Metrobus pilot program, the county noted that about half of Justice students had and were actively using the specially-designed Smartrip card.

The county hopes that, by the end of the 2022-2023 school year, 8,500 students from 30 high schools, 23 middle schools, and nine centers for students with different needs and abilities will be using the bus pass.

When the program launches at the four new schools later this year, a form will be available on the FCPS website that students’ parents can sign and turn into the school so their kid can get a bus pass.

While members were okay with the process for the foreseeable future, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay said he would eventually like to see students’ identification, bus pass, library card, and other services all consolidated on one card.

The board also discussed doing more outreach to students who don’t attend FCPS, like those who are homeschooled and attend private institutions.

“The fact that we had this Covid break and kids weren’t even going to school and we have these kinds of ridership numbers…and demand is a proven testament to the vision we had for this at the very beginning,” McKay said. “It’s a program that all of our kids in FCPS, middle and high schoolers, can take advantage of.”

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Traffic fills the Richmond Highway (via Fairfax County)

The public’s chance to comment on proposed tweaks to Fairfax County’s plan for bus rapid transit in the Route 1 corridor is almost over.

In a pair of April meetings, staff from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation recommended reducing the number of turn lanes currently along Route 1, also known as Richmond Highway, as well as some revisions to the project design, including reducing the design speed from 45 to 35 mph.

Branded The One, the planned BRT will travel to nine stations on Richmond Highway between the Huntington Metro station and Fort Belvoir. Prompted by community concerns, the proposed turn lane changes seek to improve the corridor, particularly for bicyclists and pedestrians.

In coordination with the Virginia Department of Transportation, county staff analyzed 30 proposals and recommended changes at 13 intersections:

  • Penn Daw Area — Entrance to Kings Crossing​
  • Penn Daw Area — Shields Avenue​
  • Furman Lane
  • Southgate Drive
  • Beacon Hill Road
  • Memorial Street​
  • Arlington Drive​
  • Fordson Road/Boswell Avenue​
  • Sherwood Hall Lane​
  • Ladson Lane​
  • North Buckman Road/Mount Vernon Highway​
  • Sacramento Drive/Cooper Road​
  • Jeff Todd Way/Mount Vernon Memorial Highway​

A 17-question survey seeking public input on whether to reduce turn lanes at those intersections will close at 5 p.m. today (Tuesday).

Federal money is projected to help the estimated $795 million project, according to the county. Construction could begin in 2026 and end in 2030.

Photo via Fairfax County

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Fairfax Connector buses in Reston (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A new program will make bus fares half off for certain Fairfax Connector riders, including individuals with disabilities, low-income residents and aging adults.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved a three-year agreement on Tuesday (May 24) for the plan, which would offer the discount to people making as much as twice the federal poverty level.

Those eligible for the benefit include “eligible older adults, individuals with limited income or individuals with disabilities residing in Fairfax County, the City of Fairfax or the City of Falls Church,” county staff said in the board agenda.

When discussing the program in December, the county planned to provide the discount to those with incomes of 225% of the federal poverty level, which would benefit individuals making up to $30,577 and families of four making up to $62,437.

“It is expected that this reduced fare program will aid families recovering from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and help restore Fairfax Connector ridership,” county staff said for the board item.

It’s unclear exactly when the reduced fares will be available. The agreement had a start date listed as May 1, but the county said it’s working with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to get special SmarTrip cards.

The agreement said those SmarTrip cards would be produced no later than June 1, and the county’s Neighborhood and Community Services will help administer the program.

“We know that this is a necessary mode of transportation for many of our vulnerable community members,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik said at the board meeting.

The $9.7 million assistance will rely on nearly $5.5 million from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and supports the program through April 30, 2025.

The state funds come from DRPT’s Transit Ridership Incentive Program (TRIP), which awards grants for projects to improve connectivity and reduce barriers to transit.

According to the county, low-income households represent approximately 58% of Fairfax Connector riders.

The county will also expand a free bus pass program for students later this year, Palchik said. More details are expected at a board transportation committee meeting on June 14.

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Fairfax Connector buses in Reston (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fairfax Connector has not formally rescinded its requirement that all passengers wear face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

However, a court ruling that struck down federal mandates last week means that the public bus service can no longer enforce its policy, which relied on a now-halted directive from the Transportation Security Administration.

Fairfax Connector is still encouraging passengers to keep wearing masks, according to the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

“As we await clear guidance from the federal government, Fairfax Connector encourages our passengers to follow the CDC recommendations and wear masks while riding Fairfax Connector,” Robin Geiger, head of communications for FCDOT, told FFXnow.

After Florida U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle ruled on April 18 that the federal government had overstepped in requiring masks on mass transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it will stop enforcing a mandate that had been in effect since January 2021.

The CDC still recommends that people wear masks while in indoor public transportation settings, and it announced last Wednesday (April 20) that it has asked the Department of Justice to appeal Mizelle’s ruling. The Justice Department filed an appeal that same day.

Geiger confirmed that the future of Fairfax Connector’s mask policy will depend on the outcome of the court appeal.

Masks are currently optional on Metro, Fairfax CUE buses, and Virginia Railway Express trains.

Greeted by both cheers and trepidation, a range of reactions shared by FFXnow readers, the end of the federal mask mandate for transportation came as COVID-19 cases have once again started to climb locally and nationally.

As of yesterday (Tuesday), the Fairfax Health District, which includes the county and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, was averaging 279 daily cases for the past seven days. According to the Fairfax County Health Department, the district has seen a 62% increase in cases over the last two weeks, and there have been 15 new outbreaks in the past week, 12 of them in schools and daycares.

“Although not as high as the peak in cases seen in January, this change is concerning,” the FCHD said, urging community members to consider risk levels in their day-to-day activities and continue taking precautions — including wearing a mask when indoors or around crowds.

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Portales Aloso waited an hour on Tuesday (Oct. 19) for a Metro train from Reston into D.C. The wait on Wednesday was 20 minutes.

He was among countless commuters in the D.C. area who faced travel delays this week after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority pulled more than half of its railcars from service due to reported safety issues.

The issues involving deficient wheel axles came to officials’ attention after a Blue Line train derailed in Arlington on Oct. 12, prompting mass inspections and a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

The reduced service levels will continue through at least Oct. 31, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld announced at a media briefing today (Friday).

“We understand it has been a difficult week for people who depend on Metro in the region, and acknowledge the challenges our customers are experiencing,” Wiedefeld said. “We are working as quickly and safely as possible to inspect every wheel on the 7000-series railcars and it’s important to get that right.”

Metro says it is working to bring older trains into service to offset the absence of the 748 cars in its 7000-series fleet, bringing some 2000-series railcars out of storage and finishing maintenance repairs on the 6000 series.

The transit agency still has 100 cars in the 7000-series fleet remaining for inspection, and it currently has no estimate for when full service will be restored.

WMATA is encouraging riders to use its bus service, though Wiedefeld told media that Metrobus is operating at about 97% capacity.

Multiple Fairfax Connector bus drivers told FFXnow earlier this week that, despite the Metro delays, they didn’t notice any differences in the number of passengers on their routes, suggesting riders haven’t opted for other public transit as an alternative.

Salim Furth, a senior fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center who has analyzed how the pandemic could prompt long-term commuting changes, is pessimistic about the chances of Metro’s situation improving, at least in the near-term.

“This is bad, scary, and might get much, much worse before it gets better,” he said Monday on Twitter.

He’s encouraging policymakers and WMATA to plan now for worst-case scenarios and heavily focus on expanded bus service and pop-up bus lanes.

A Metro spokesperson told FFXnow that the service issues are not expected to impact the delivery of phase two of the Silver Line next year.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay says the county is investing in transit with projects over the next few years to cut congestion and incentivize public transportation, including bus rapid transit systems on Richmond Highway and Route 7.

“Ultimately, this incident demonstrates the need for extensive and accessible public transit infrastructure,” McKay said in a statement.

Still, there is no immediate plan to add bus drivers or routes to Fairfax Connector, the largest bus system in Northern Virginia, said transportation department spokesperson Robin Geiger.

She noted the system has room on express bus routes to D.C. and the Pentagon to accommodate additional riders, providing one alternative to rail.

Further down the road, Fairfax Connector is planning to add new express bus routes between Reston and Arlington using I-66 toll money. The county got a final approval on its application to the Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which ranks the I-66 Commuter Choice program projects, reviewed the proposal last year. The approval will cover the costs of acquiring six new buses.

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