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Vienna Metro station bus shelter (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Metro will assemble an armada of shuttles this summer to support travelers during its multi-week shutdowns of several stations on the Orange, Silver and Green lines.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced yesterday that free shuttle buses will be available throughout the closures, which will begin on May 12 and roll out to Fairfax County’s Orange Line stations starting June 3.

During the closures, the agency will conduct maintenance work at each of the stations and modernize their facilities.

“Continued maintenance work is essential to safe and reliable rail service,” WMATA Chief of Infrastructure Andy Off said in the press release. “We are working strategically to target maintenance locations and minimize the impacts on customers as we conduct this critical work to upgrade systems, improve reliability, and modernize station facilities.”

In Fairfax County, the closures will take place in two phases.

First, the Vienna, Dunn Loring, West Falls Church and East Falls Church stations will close from June 3 to 25 so that Metro can replace the 40-year-old train rails and add fiber-optic cables.

“Replacing the track in this section is a top priority to ensure safety and increase reliability,” WMATA said.

A combination of local, express and limited-stop shuttle service will be offered:

Orange Line Shuttle: Local service between Vienna, Dunn Loring, West Falls Church, East Falls Church, and Ballston-MU stations.

  • Local service between McLean, East Falls Church, and Ballston-MU stations.
  • Every 5 minutes during rush hours. (6- 9 a.m., 3-7 p.m.)

Orange Line Express: Express service between Vienna and Rosslyn stations.

  • Service every 5 minutes during rush hours. (6-9 a.m., 3-7 p.m.)
  • Service every 10 minutes during non-rush hours. (9 a.m.-3 p.m., 7-9 p.m.)

Silver Line Limited: Limited-stop service between Washington Dulles International Airport, McLean, and Rosslyn.

  • Service every 5 minutes during rush hours. (6-9 a.m., 3-7 p.m.)
  • Service every 10 minutes during non-rush hours. (9 a.m.-3 p.m., 7-9 p.m.)

Silver Line riders will need to take a shuttle to bypass the East Falls Church transfer station. Trains between Ashburn and McLean will run every eight minutes, except after 9:30 p.m., when they will operate every 10 minutes.

Both of the Falls Church stations will reopen on June 26, but the Vienna and Dunn Loring stations will stay closed through July 16 to finish the rail replacement and cable installation.

Free local shuttle service will be provided betwen the Vienna, Dunn Loring and West Falls Church stations, operating every 5 to 10 minutes on weekdays and every 10 minutes on weekends while Metrorail is open.

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A Fairfax Connector bus in Tysons (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

All kids under the age of 12 will soon be able to ride the Fairfax Connector for free.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted yesterday (Tuesday) to change the bus system’s policy to allow any child 12 or younger to ride for free when accompanied by a paying adult.

The vote closes a gap in the county’s transit policy that left children between ages 5 and 12 paying for bus fare, while younger kids and high school students can ride for free.

Hunter Mill Supervisor Walter Alcorn said the change is part of an ongoing effort to expand the number of riders who can ride Fairfax Connector fare-free — without going fully free like neighboring Alexandria.

“This is a nice step forward,” said Alcorn. “…As we move forward with identifying populations that really should get free fare, we should do that, and just as a reminder, we have some other things coming in terms of reduced fare. So, this is one of a number of initiatives we’re doing in terms of our bus fare strategy.”

Chairman Jeff McKay said one of the long-term benefits of getting more children riding Fairfax Connector is familiarizing a new generation with mass transit.

“This is great,” McKay said. “Not only is it for people who need it — in this case it’s free fare for children — but we’re also building a population and educating a population on how to use mass transit. It’s an investment in the future, and we’ve certainly seen that with the student bus pass program.

Calling the new policy “fantastic,” he thanked county staff for proposing the change and “the speed at which they got this to the Board for approval.”

The new policy will take effect on May 1.

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

Fairfax Connector could be free for all children ages 12 and under.

The Fairfax County Department of Transportation’s current policy is kids under 5 years old do not need to pay a fare. The new policy would extend that to all children under 12.

Older children can already get a free student bus pass: all Fairfax County middle and high school students can ride on all Fairfax County routes and some Metrobus routes for free between 5 a.m.-10 p.m. with a student bus pass. The transportation department said in a presentation the change would “close a gap” in the county’s fare-free policy for kids.

Those children would still obviously need to be accompanied by a fare-paying adult to receive a free fare.

In a presentation, the Department of Transportation said there are several potential benefits to the change.

  • Closes the gap in fare-free travel for children between ages 5-12
  • Increases accessibility and removes barriers to travel for parents. Especially beneficial for trips to access medical or social services
  • This change will help children become acclimated to using public transit from an early age thereby creating increased transportation alternatives

FCDOT is collecting feedback on the proposed change until next Friday, March 10.

The policy change is scheduled to be presented to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on April 11. If approved, it would take effect on April 30.

Fairfax Connector launched a pilot last month allowing low-income riders to get half-price fares.

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Old Dominion Transportation Group is the only taxicab operator in Fairfax County (staff photo by David Taube)

With the rise of ride-hailing services, Fairfax County has seen its taxicab fleet whittled down to just one operator.

That operator, Old Dominion Transportation Group (ODTG), hopes to extend the life of its 130-vehicle fleet by asking the county to revise an existing requirement that phases out taxis once they reach 10 years of age or more than 500,000 miles traveled.

The company has requested that the model-year age be raised to 12 or 15 years and that the mileage limit be eliminated.

“ODTG cites the continued struggle with the effects of the pandemic as well as competition from the transportation network companies (TNCs),” county staff said in a report for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “ODTG also references the different requirements of other surrounding jurisdictions. ODTG believes that it can continue to provide safe, comfortable transportation for their passengers if this request is approved.”

According to county staff, ODTG raised the request on Oct. 11, 2022 after its sole competitor — Alexandria-based White Top Cab — shut down its Fairfax County operations on Sept. 1, returning its 20 taxicab certificates.

ODTG reported that 25 of its vehicles were scheduled to “age out” on Dec. 31, 2022. While it has enough active vehicles to at least temporarily offset the losses, the company says replacing vehicles has become challenging, as the new and used car markets grapple with supply chain issues and fluctuating prices.

Fairfax County and D.C. are the only jurisdictions in the region to impose mileage requirements on their taxi fleets, according to staff.

A comparison of taxi vehicle requirements in D.C. area localities (via Fairfax County)

Following a model already used in Alexandria City and Arlington County, county staff have proposed splitting the requirement into separate tiers for gas-powered and electric or hybrid vehicles:

The 10-year model-age requirement [should] be increased to 12 years for gasoline-only powered non-wheelchair accessible vehicles and 15 years for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric, and wheelchair accessible vehicles. This proposal provides an incentive for the operators to replace their fleet with non-gasoline powered vehicles. Staff also recommends that the mileage requirement for all vehicles be eliminated.

The report notes that taxis are required to under go state inspections annually during their first six years of operation. Once they hit seven years of age, they’re also inspected every six months by the county’s taxicab inspector.

“Staff believes these inspections are sufficient in lieu of maintaining a mileage requirement,” staff said.

The staff’s recommended code amendment “balances the challenges of the taxicab operators, considers the practice of local jurisdictions, ensures the safety of the riding public, and helps the environment,” the report says.

The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposal around 3:30 p.m. today (Tuesday).

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A new dashboard looking at transit around the region illustrates Fairfax Connector’s slow climb back to pre-pandemic ridership levels.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission recently released an interactive website that lets users break down ridership at various local transit services and compare and contrast those figures.

For Fairfax Connector, data from the last year of ridership shows a stark upswing that started in June and has gradually brought the system back up to pre-pandemic levels.

The bus system had a promising start to 2020 with 669,501 riders that January — higher than numbers for that month in previous years. Those numbers dove over the next two months as the Covid pandemic kicked into gear, dropping to a low of 248,866 riders in April.

Ridership only marginally recovered through the rest of 2020 and 2021, but the pace of recovery picked up in 2022 and shot up from June to July, reaching a post-pandemic high of 738,968 riders in August 2022. In September, Fairfax Connector surpassed pre-pandemic ridership for the same month for the first time since February 2020.

The Connector isn’t alone in this recovery. DASH in Alexandria and the CUE bus in the City of Fairfax saw similar recoveries in the second half of 2022.

In Alexandria, DASH’s dramatic uptick in ridership seemed fueled in part by switching to a fare-free system. Fairfax County was considering a similar move for the Connector, but that was tabled by the Board of Supervisors earlier this month in favor of a discounted rate for low-income passengers.

Overall transit ridership in the area, though, remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels — in large part due to Metro accounting for more than 78.6% of the region’s ridership.

Metro didn’t have quite the same dramatic return to pre-pandemic ridership in Virginia that Fairfax Connector experienced.

While Metro’s combined ridership for rail and bus was higher every month in 2022 than it was in 2021, it’s still half what it was in 2018 and 2019. In Virginia, Metro’s ridership for September was roughly 4.1 million — less than half of the 9.2 million riders in 2019.

Fairfax County doesn’t have the same high percentage of access to transit — around 61.3% of the total population — compared to neighbors like Arlington and Alexandria, but that’s to be expected given that it’s significantly larger with less urbanized areas.

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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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