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Rail-Bus Debate Focuses on Costs

Over the course of last week’s three Dulles rail public hearings, a pattern seemed to emerge. Most speakers were in favor of building either rail only or bus rapid transit only.

Almost no one endorsed the phased alternative, in which rail would be preceded by bus rapid transit. And almost no one endorsed the rail/bus rapid transit alternative, in which rail would be built to Tysons and bus rapid transit would be extended out to Dulles Airport.

Some of the main reasons for supporting either rail or bus rapid transit were financial. Rail proponents argued that the bus rapid transit system would be superfluous, and should be bypassed in favor of rail. When officials originally designed the rail plan, the federal government had agreed to fund 80 percent of the bus rapid transit project. Now the federal government plans to fund 60 percent of the bus rapid transit portion.

“Local leaders should be applauded for [the Fairfax Connector] bus system,” said Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36), member of a group called Rail Now. “It already is a bus rapid transit system. And the bus system in place should be enhanced. But the focus of our efforts should be on rail.”

Bus rapid transit would cost over $481 million to build, but under the phased implementation plan $287 million of that investment would be converted to rail. Rail only is projected to cost $3.1 billion. The bus rapid transit proponents at the hearings, most of whom were property owners in the Dulles corridor, pointed out that bus rapid transit would be much less expensive than rail.

“RAIL COSTS eight to 10 times more than bus rapid transit,” said Tom Hirst, who owns commercial office buildings in the Dulles Corridor. “We think bus rapid transit has been seriously under-considered.”

Rail is projected to be around 6.5 times more expensive than bus rapid transit. Rail is projected to be built by 2010, but many have speculated that the project may take longer, depending on the availability of federal funding.

“It would be better to have rapid transit now, not 15 years from now,” Hirst said.

Fairfax County will pay around 16 percent of the cost of either the bus rapid transit or the rail option. That share, which Dulles corridor land owners will help pay, will total $75 million for the bus rapid transit option and $499 million for the rail option.

Hirst said a bus rapid transit system, if correctly configured, could handle the same capacity as the rail system. He mentioned a bus system in Bogota, Columbia, which handles 68,000 people per hour.

“We don’t have to build a whole new, rigid system,” Hirst said. “Buses are adaptable. We can have lots more collection points. Its a better way for people to go.”

But bus rapid transit, as it is currently proposed, will include eight stops along the Dulles Toll Road between the West Falls Church metro station and Route 772 in Loudoun County. The bus system is projected to have a full capacity of 2,370 passengers per hour. Rail, with between three and six stations in Tysons corner and seven stops along the toll road, is projected at a capacity of 9,600 passengers per hour.

“IF THERE WOULD ever be more bus rapid transit customers than the capacity can handle, then it is time for Metrorail,” Dittmeier said. “Much like a highway, there would be congestion with the bus rapid transit system.”

The rail capacity is reached with 10 eight-car trains per hour, carrying 960 passengers each. The bus rapid transit capacity is met with 39 buses per hour and 61 passengers per bus. The buses would run along the Dulles Airport Access Road.

The rail system is projected to handle 101,000 passengers a day by 2025. Bus rapid transit is projected to handle 49,400 passengers daily in that same year.

“The bus rapid transit system as [proposed] is not an effective system,” said Joe Stowers, a longtime Restonian and urban planner.

By 2025 a trip from the Herndon-Monroe transit station to the West Falls Church metro station, using the Fairfax Connector bus system which is currently in place, should take 42 minutes during the peak travel time, 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. That same trip should take 40 minutes using bus rapid transit and 26 minutes using rail, according to John Dittmeier, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority acting project manager for the Dulles corridor transit project. Trips on both bus rapid transit and rail would cost the same amount, using metro’s distance-based fare structure. Dittmeier forecasted that a trip from Herndon-Monroe to Metro Center would cost $3.25 in 2010, the year rail is scheduled to be built.

Costs to maintain rail and bus rapid transit will also be similar. The raw amount it will cost to maintain the rail system will be much higher than the cost to maintain the bus system. But, rail will also accommodate many more passengers. So, the cost to maintain the bus rapid transit system will be 26 cents per every passenger mile while the cost to maintain the rail system will be 27 cents per every passenger mile.