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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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