MAN ABOUT TOWN: Goodbye GEORGE (the Bus)

Falls Church Times Columnist

April 12, 2010

The GEORGE bus is dead – not officially, but the handwriting is on the wall. The only reason GEORGE funding has stayed in the draft budget until now was because the buses were purchased with federal grant money, and there was a penalty clause if service was discontinued. It was cheaper to continue subsidizing GEORGE next year at a cost of $117,000 than to shut it down. But then someone realized that if we gave the buses to Arlington we could avoid the penalty. Bye-bye GEORGE.

I say good riddance. That should be a big surprise to long-time readers, given that a year ago I was championing GEORGE and pointing out that shutting it down would lose a lot of state aid. And, indeed, City Councilman Dan Maller figured out how to keep the buses running another year at minimal cost to the City.

I had a lot of ideas for improving GEORGE, and unlike the people in charge, I actually used to ride the bus. But now I realize that as long as we’re stuck with those horribly impractical GEORGE buses, we’ll never have the kind of public transit this city needs.

GEORGE was doomed from the start, because it was based not on any practical needs but instead was a high-tech experiment with other people’s money. The buses were going to be electric. When, after wasting a great deal of time and money, that idea failed, we got “clean diesel” buses that are 2-3 times the size they should be.

Consider: Falls Church lies in close proximity to a multi-billion dollar subway system. But most residents are not within close walking distance, so to access the subway they must either drive or take a bus. Driving presents several problems – at East Falls Church the parking lot fills by 7 a.m., and you’re tying up a motor vehicle and a valuable parking space all day for a very short drive.

That’s where GEORGE was supposed to come in. Run the buses up and down the little side streets of the City, and take commuters to the Metro. But when those Big Bertha buses started rolling down East Columbia Street, influential residents got up in arms. The buses were shaking their houses. Soon GEORGE was banned from Broadmont and stayed on Washington Street, same as the Metrobuses. Why pay for a city bus that practically duplicates the existing Metrobus route?

Arlington’s equivalent of GEORGE, known as ART, is so much more practical. Instead of the behemoth buses we’re saddled with, Arlington uses an appropriate size for each route, including a fleet of smaller vehicles similar to the courtesy buses that rental car companies operate at airports.

Last week I saw one of the ART buses running the GEORGE route on South Virginia Avenue (they substitute an ART bus when a GEORGE bus is undergoing maintenance). It looked so, so much more practical. It was a Ford E-450, like the photo below. List price: $70,000. A GEORGE bus costs 3 ½ times as much, and that doesn’t include the much higher operating and maintenance costs.

Arlington uses Ford E-450 buses for some routes. The model above costs under $70,000 and seats 24. The much larger GEORGE bus costs over $250,000 yet seats the same number of passengers. But it is wheelchair accessible. The cutting-edge GEORGE buses also are equipped with a "Clever Device," which announces and displays each stop along the route.

I do appreciate that the City finally set up the GEORGE Task Force, even though it came five years too late. But the task force was boxed in from the beginning, when instead it needed a clean sheet of paper.

Here are some outside-the-box suggestions:

  • Per above, use small buses and run them through neighborhoods that lack easy access to a Metrobus.
  • Don’t try to service both East and West Falls Church Metro; devote our limited resources to routes to EFC – where parking is scarce and where most commuters are headed anyway.
  • Start small: someday there may be a market for using public transportation to get to places in the City (like the State Theatre), but for now the only practical use for a GEORGE-like system is as a shuttle to the subway.
  • Eliminate the “circle routes” in favor of two normal routes, each with east-west service. One would be north and the other south of Broad Street, snaking through suburban streets.
  • And for real efficiency, figure out a way to run a joint shuttle service with our Arlington and Fairfax neighbors. That would build ridership and cut costs.

Of course, with the budget crisis, none of this will happen. GEORGE will go away, and its riders will either have to walk a little farther to a Metrobus or go back to driving their cars. The City will save a little money and possibly lose some state subsidies. And the chance to actually emulate a European city, where you’re not dependent on a car, will be kicked down the road for another decade or two or three.

Goodbye GEORGE – we hardly knew you.

April 12, 2010 


7 Responses to “MAN ABOUT TOWN: Goodbye GEORGE (the Bus)”

  1. Barry Buschow on April 12th, 2010 9:40 am

    George, you need to read our GEORGE Task Force Report. People do rely on it because they are at a distance from Metro buses, don’t have a car, don’t like walking at night, don’t have the funds to drive 1 mile and park for $4.50 a day, etc…..With all deference to your remark about Dan Maller, I don’t remember him doing anything to help keep it going. The task force did ask Arlington if they would take the buses and they said no but now Arlington wants to Increase their service to their citizens and for the fix up cost of about $30k they have 4 very good buses that will last another 5 years or so because of our inability to manage them properly. This in my mind is another example of how short sighted we are, like selling the Pendleton house. It is a public asset that can provide public park land and an additional ball field which we desperately need. We are going to sell it because we put no energy into maximizing its value to our community; instead we put the funds into our operating fund to be consumed and forgotten.

  2. Kathleen Nebeker, City of Falls Church on April 12th, 2010 9:56 am

    I have a question, unrelated to George. The mention of Broadmont, specifically E. Columbia, brought it to mind. Will E. Columbia have its speed humps replaced and is there any coordination of traffic calming happening with Arlington on that stretch of road? E. Columbia becomes 16th Street as it crosses the boundary into Arlington.

  3. Tim Stevens, Falls Church City on April 12th, 2010 10:22 am

    Good article. I have started taking the George recently for occasional trips to DC. The morning route to WFC is great – five minutes up Grove Ave. and you’re there; worthwhile at $1. On average there have been about a dozen people on this trip. The evening trip would take 40 minutes. Some of that time is on Broad St., where it sits in traffic adding to ground level ozone and duplicating Metrobus. Walking was much easier, so no George for me in the PM. I agree that the current size of bus used is too large for our needs, and the routes should be on side streets. It would be a setback for us not to have this service, as we would lose an important element of walkability. Transit is a necessary component to lowering our collective carbon footprint. Best of luck to the George Task Force to come up with a way to find a formula that works. Otherwise we’re just another suburb tethered to our cars.

  4. TFC on April 12th, 2010 10:36 am

    Barry, can you post a link to the task force report? Thanks.

    (The other) George responds: Just added the link to Barry’s comment. (Click on it.) Thanks Barry — and yes, I read it when it first came out and read it again before writing this week’s column. Regarding Dan Maller’s role, here’s the link to our April 28, 2009, report which states the following: “City Manager Wyatt Shields originally recommended eliminating GEORGE completely, but the program was saved, at least for one year, when the Council agreed to a proposal by Councilman Dan Maller to draw down $150,000 from the City’s share of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission trust fund. Another $150,000 will come from rider fares, state subsidies, and proffers from real estate developers.”

  5. Peter Herrick on April 12th, 2010 10:56 am

    Re: Barry BUSchow’s comment about shortsightedness: How about the $1 a year rental the city gets for the UVA building next to GM High School. The alternative could have been an established AAA baseball team with new stadium and with sports facilities available free or at little cost to the high school. Tax revenues would have exceeded anything else available to the city and it would have brought the kind of commercial development the city is now begging for. Unfortunately, the City Council a few years ago defeated the stadium deal by one vote.

  6. Dan Maller, City of Falls Church on April 12th, 2010 11:17 am

    Thanks George; I was going to say that all I really did was to point out an additional funding source, which allowed us to kick this oversized can down the road another year, and now we have to confront the issue again with a somewhat better idea of the details as a result of the task force report.

    I should also note that while there is an obvious appeal to smaller vehicles, the cost of operating any bus under the present arrangement is IDENTICAL; the ART contract which came in at $75/hr vs. over $100 for WMATA actually gave us the benefit of a blended rate including all of the smaller vehicles operated by ART, so there really are little or no operating cost savings to be had from vehicles like the one pictured.

    On the capital side, virtually all transit costs are provided by [federal] subsidies, because of the very significant benefits of transit including air quality and the necessity of building large parking structures instead of being able to cluster revenue-generating development around rail stations. Obviously the Metro stations are not in the City, but there are real long-term benefits to a well-designed shuttle system, but we have yet to identify how to get from here to there, literally and figuratively.

  7. Barry Buschow on April 12th, 2010 1:22 pm

    Apologies to Dan, the bus has been running because of the trust fund and not costing our city tax payers. I thought staff knew about the trust fund and the use of it. Anyway with the projected increase in subsidy to metro, the fund will not be large enough to also support GEORGE. Yea, we got off on the wrong foot with the bus system. But I think we are a lot more informed about how to start it again, some day….George I will send you the actual report as your link is just to a presentation that does not contain all the information.

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