Monday, November 7, 2005

More Northern Virginia residents are taking a stand, literally, for public transportation.

Morning commutes aboard the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) often are standing room only as that system reaches capacity. Many bus routes are that crowded, too.

Overall public-transportation ridership grew last year to 128 million trips for Northern Virginia residents, up 3.3 million from a year earlier. The figure from the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) includes the VRE, Metro and eight local bus systems.

Although public-transit usage increased nationwide, the jump in Northern Virginia was nearly double the national average.

“It’s a stunning statistic,” said Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “With enough resources, we could significantly expand that.”

He said gridlock is the reason people are turning to mass transit.

In neighboring Loudoun County, Cheyenne Cashin of Sterling is careful to be at her bus station 10 minutes early to make sure she gets one of the 55 reclining seats for her 45-minute trip to the D.C. law firm where she works.

Ridership on the Loudoun County bus system increased 31 percent last year and has nearly doubled since 2003.

“I just don’t want to fight the traffic. It’s just too much stress. I like having my time to read or take a nap,” said Miss Cashin, a bus rider since the late 1980s, before Loudoun County took over the program.

Arlington County’s ART bus service saw ridership grow with 116,000 more trips. The Fairfax Connector buses had a half-million more passenger trips.

The only service that did not grow dramatically was the VRE, which officials warn is at capacity.

“You can’t get more rail cars until you get more money,” said NVTC Executive Director Rick Taube. “The Virginia General Assembly says it would like to pay 95 percent of the public transportation costs not covered by the federal government or fares.

“To meet its own target, the state of Virginia should be providing twice as much for transit as they do,” Mr. Taube said.

Instead of paying 95 percent of the uncovered costs, Mr. Taube said, the state typically pays closer to 40 percent.

He said state funding jumped to 63 percent for fiscal 2006, but would fall to 25 percent by 2007 if the legislature does not act.

“It puts us on a little bit of a roller coaster and makes it impossible for transportation systems to plan,” Mr. Taube said.

Because of the high stakes in the next legislative session, NVTC board members will have a careful eye out today, as all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election.

“If we can elect some more transit-friendly delegates, that will be a help,” Mr. Connolly said. “Now, 14 percent of transportation funding in the state goes to transit. That needs to be expanded.”

NVTC Chairman Paul Ferguson said he hopes to see half the money go to transit, but he realizes that is unlikely.

“There is talk of expansion for VRE,” Mr. Ferguson said. “It would make sense to put money into that.”

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