Loudoun Co. seeks flexibility in return for commuter bus service amid COVID recovery

Bus commuter ridership took a big hit regionally at the start of COVID-19 — Loudoun County, Va., might want to retain flexibility in determining the number and destination of routes for now.

Commuter bus ridership was hit hard regionally at the start of COVID-19 — and officials in Loudoun County, Va., say they may want to retain some flexibility in determining numbers and destination routes for now.

On Tuesday, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors will consider extending delegated authority to the county administrator until June 2023 to negotiate changes to existing transit service contracts and modify transit services to integrate the ever reduced demand with a changing suburban environment, locally and regionally.

In March 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Loudoun County commuter bus service was suspended, subway connection service was curtailed, and fixed-route local service was modified. Regionally, fares for public transit services were removed, back-door boarding was instituted, and social distancing began.

Since then, the county administrator has had the authority to pay furloughed transit employees, from the period of infinitesimal demand from riders, until recovery begins, until fare collection resumes in May 2021.

Last month, on March 1, the Board of Supervisors voted to end the local emergency declaration that had been in place since March 2020.

Now, two years into the pandemic, the county faces a different and difficult to predict commuting landscape, particularly in determining future bus service.

Prior to COVID-19, commuter bus ridership — with longer runs between Loudoun County and DC, Crystal City and the Pentagon — was between 3,300 and 4,650 passengers per day. Commuter bus ridership is only 9% of pre-COVID levels, staff say.

Another area of ​​continued steep decline is metro connection service – with buses connecting to Metrorail stations – to just 7% of pre-pandemic levels.

However, local fixed-route service – with service between towns and neighborhoods in Loudoun County – remains strong: “Overall, weekly ridership levels are averaging 71.3% of pre -COVID, with infrequent surges approaching pre-COVID levels,” according to the staff report included in the Tuesday evening agenda item.

Paratransit routes are operating at 100% of pre-pandemic levels, with “average ridership levels of 78.9% and some days having higher ridership than pre-pandemic levels.”

Although some ridership demand is strong, supervisors will hear about the challenges of predicting bus ridership.

“Transit use over the next few years will be very difficult to predict,” according to staff research, based on “changing travel behaviors in the region, the opening of Metrorail service in the county of Loudoun, the continued use of telecommuting by the private and public sectors, fear of using public transport, the lack of childcare services and modified school hours.

As a result, ridership will likely take a year or more to return to pre-COVID levels, according to the staff report.

And while no start date has yet been set, Metrorail’s Silver Line Phase 2 extension in Loudoun County is set to begin in 2022.

“This new alternative to transit service could shift riders from commuter bus service to Metrorail, further confusing bus ridership forecasts. Ridership is down, especially in the
The commuter bus program continued to have a significant negative impact on transit service revenues,” according to the agenda item.

Two years into the pandemic, with the “new normal” still being determined, the council will vote on whether to extend County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s authority to modify contracts and services.

Staff say the county is in a financial position to deal with the fluid situation: “The enacted budgets for transit in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 sufficiently fund the needs of transit services at levels that provide flexibility necessary to increase the number of buses and routes to operate and meet any increased demand for transit service.

Melvin Z. Madore