Frank Washington has been riding the Fairfax Connector bus from his home in Annandale to his job at the Springfield Mall every day since the tags on his car expired about a month ago. What he's found is that the buses could be a little more punctual.
"Sometimes they're early, sometimes they're late. You never know," he said. "I'm from Columbus, Ohio. Their bus system is better down there."
But Fairfax County's bus system may soon be closer to Columbus, Ohio's, once the county implements a new bus plan for the southern part of the county. The South County Bus Plan, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors last month, will reroute existing bus lines to better accommodate riders, increase service by 25 percent and build new bus shelters, sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, according to Young Ho Chang, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.
The county is also planning to launch a new express-bus service, known as the Richmond Highway Express, REX for short, which will whisk commuters up and down Route 1. The new buses will be equipped with transponders that can make traffic lights change so that the bus will not be stopped at red lights.
"Richmond Highway has been one of our strongest transit use [areas] in the county, and a lot of the users are transit-dependent users," said Chang.
The idea for the express-bus service came from the success of a similar initiative on the Dulles Toll Road, which increased ridership by 150 percent in five years, he added.
The first phase of the expansion project is slated to kick in on Sept. 26, when the bus service increases by 25 percent, with other improvements to follow.
"We haven't looked at this comprehensive review since [the Connector's] inception in 1985," Chang said.
THE BUS PLAN has cheered pedestrian advocates and riders, many of whom had not heard about the initiative.
"That sounds good," said Kisha Johnson, a Fort Washington, Md., resident who rides to her job at the Springfield Mall every day.
"We're definitely pleased about the relocation of some of the bus stops. We're definitely pleased about some of the sidewalks," said Robert Brubaker, director of Metroped, an Alexandria-based group that advocates for better pedestrian facilities.
He said some of the crosswalks and bus stops are poorly placed, in such a way that it can be dangerous for pedestrians to use them. For instance, some crosswalks at busy intersections put pedestrians at risk from cars turning left. Brubaker said he would like to see crosswalks farther away from intersections.
"Many of the pedestrians we've talked to actually go away from the crosswalks," he said. "They feel the crosswalks are less safe."
The full project will cost about $55 million, Chang said. So far the county's Department of Transportation has received $14 million, mostly from the federal government.
Part of the project's funding will come from ad revenue on the sides of buses, as well as fare-box collections. Starting June 27, the Fairfax Connector bus system raised its base fare from 75 cents to $1 per trip, with the increase set to pay for better service.
"We're hoping that our customers will see that the increase in fares directly results in better service and more service," Chang said.
"I'm seeing change in the county," said Brubaker. "I'm seeing change in their mind set, and for that I'm fairly pleased. It was long, and it was slow."