In fiscal year 2011, Metrobus lines 16A,B,D,E,J,P, which terminate/originate at Pentagon, carried an average weekday ridership of 5,858. The 16G,H,K lines, which Pike Trolley is designed to replace, carry 3,786 to Pentagon City. The 16F and 16Y, neither of which serve Pentagon City, serve another 2,000 or so daily riders. Thus, about a third of weekday daily PikeRiders currently use Pentagon City, and about 2/3rds don’t.
Among the reasons that the County is planning to build the trolley is to “provide increased capacity.” The County, correctly, notes that one can only add so many buses to a road at a given time. But, capacity to take people where? The County’s answer is Pentagon City: the place that 2 out of 3 weekday PikeRiders isn’t trying to get to.
So why go to Pentagon City rather than Pentagon? For once, the answer probably isn’t Board ineptitude. The answer, rather, is most likely the Department of Defense, that can’t really be told to do anything by a local jurisdiction.
In 2002, a new Pentagon bus terminal opened. While the bus transfer facility works OK, it’s got lots of problems from a public transit point of view. First, buses have to mix with the cars of Pentagon workers at the entrance roads*. Second, the tight angles required to get in and out of the station result in length limitations on the buses that can use the terminal. Currently, the bus station is not suitable for articulated (bendy) buses.
Of course, the purpose of the Defense Department is not to get Northern Virginians to and from work as quick as possible. But any transit improvement that ignores the reality that half of Pike Riders go to the Pentagon is doomed to fail.
What can the County do?
- Pressure, cajole, beg and lobby for a transit route for a streetcar or articulated buses from Columbia Pike to the Pentagon (this is in addition to Pentagon City). One striking thing: the Pentagon has acres upon acres of parking lots. Couldn’t they spare some room by building a garage or two? (I know, I know, security concerns, but the lots between the highway and Army-Navy Drive seem like good candidates.) It seems that an articulated bus is an easier sell as there is no need to rip up the roads that Pentagon workers currently use. A vehicle turnaround (rather than a turn into the current transit center) in the parking lot at the end of Rotary Road S seems the best idea.
- Build an underground tunnel from Army-Navy Drive (both sides) to the Pentagon transit center for a transfer from either bendy buses or trolleys. Would require a moving sidewalk to be a viable choice.
To be clear, these are difficult and expensive propositions. Yet without something like this, any addition of new vehicles to Pike Ride service will fail to accomplish the goal of increasing capacity for the majority of current riders.
One final thing for non-Pentagon City riders: the County should work on getting buses priority on the Roosevelt Bridge and Rochambeau (14th St.) Bridge. (Hat tip to commenter Ren for this one.) Until politicians get an appetite for real Metrorail expansion, it is only buses that can alleviate transit choke points like the Potomac river bridges and tunnels.
*The men and women who direct traffic at the Pentagon every workday – no matter the elements – are very good at their jobs. They take a terrible situation and make it manageable.