- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

D.C.-Dulles trip will run hourly

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority plans to begin its first express bus service Dec. 4 for D.C. residents who work in the suburbs.

The first "reverse commute" buses will run from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles International Airport.

WMATA and the D.C. Council are trying to create more than a new transit route. Officials believe they are opening employment opportunities for unemployed D.C. residents who qualify for entry-level jobs as hotel workers, security guards, food service attendants, maintenance personnel and others.

"It's removing one of the obstacles for employment," said David Catania, the Republican D.C. Council member who pushed the reverse commute program to completion. "Unfortunately, we don't have an abundance of job opportunities for low-skilled workers right now."

The Dulles Area Transportation Authority estimates that 2,500 jobs in the Dulles Corridor remain unfilled. The high-tech boom created the need for retail and service jobs to support the economic development. At the same time, more than 15,000 D.C. residents, or about 6 percent of the population, are unemployed, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

"The purpose of this reverse commute option is to make it easier and less expensive for them to get [to these unfilled jobs]," Mr. Catania said.

The buses will run hourly, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and continuing until 11:30 p.m. The fare for the 55-minute ride will be $1.10, the same as for other WMATA buses. The buses will stop only at the Rosslyn Metro Station and the Herndon Monroe Transportation Center before continuing to Dulles International Airport. The same stops and fare are scheduled for the return trips.

The D.C. Council reviewed the reverse commute plan last week at a special hearing. Testifying in favor of the plan were representatives from Dulles Corridor employers, the D.C. Department of Employment Services and WMATA. No one testified against the idea.

The D.C. Council has agreed to contribute a $750,000 subsidy for the first year of operation, which Mr. Catania called an "experiment." He hopes employers and increased revenue from fares will pay for all or most of the service in later years. "We don't expect the buses to be full the first day," Mr. Catania said.

To attract D.C. residents interested in jobs in the Dulles Corridor, a job fair is scheduled for Nov. 28 in the lobby of the Reeves Center at 2000 14th St. NW. Employers will be available to answer questions and help job-seekers fill out applications.

Mr. Catania said a contributing reason for the reverse commute program is the upcoming deadline for elimination of some welfare benefits under the Welfare Reform Act. The act allows a maximum of five years of guaranteed benefits for most recipients. The first five-year deadline will expire in March 2002.

"We don't look at this as a permanent solution, merely a temporary one," Mr. Catania said. "We've got quite a few individuals who are coming off the welfare rolls in March 2002 and we haven't done a particularly good job of preparing them for employment."

Jim Hughes, WMATA operations planning director, oversaw a market study that identified potential employees for the Dulles Corridor by their ZIP codes. About 70 percent of them live in Southeast. Most of the others come from Capitol Hill and residential areas along Georgia Avenue.

"Most of the employers out there are doing things like raising their base pay and giving bonuses for bringing in new employees," Mr. Hughes said. "They're going farther and farther away from their employment sites to find employees. What we're trying to do is provide a transportation link for District residents to jobs out in the Dulles Corridor."

WMATA chose L'Enfant Plaza as the departure point because of its central location. Twelve bus lines and four of Metro's five train routes stop there.

Mr. Hughes said any overlap with other transit services, such as the Washington Flyer vans and buses to Dulles and the Fairfax Connector buses, probably would have little effect on their ridership.

"We're really trying to serve a different market; that is, the employee market," Mr. Hughes said. He added that WMATA "would neither encourage or discourage" other riders from using the reverse commute buses.

Among the employers who testified before the D.C. Council last week was Christopher Crane, regional manager for Chevy Chase-based B.F. Saul Co.'s hotel division. The company operates five hotels in the Dulles Corridor, including the Holiday Inn-Dulles and the Hampton Inn-Dulles.

About 40 positions are vacant at the five hotels, including waiters, front desk clerks, cooks, dishwashers and housekeepers, Mr. Crane said.

"We do get a number of phone calls from people living in the District inquiring about employment," he said. "Once they find out we have positions available, their next question is, 'How do I get there?' Until now, our answer was, You can't."

He added, however, that he was not convinced the reverse commute program alone would resolve the Dulles Corridor's labor shortage.

"It's a good beginning," Mr. Crane said. "Whether or not it will really impact our employment needs, time will tell. The schedule of the service as well as the cost certainly meets the needs of these folks."

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