Ridership on commuter buses took a big hit regionally at the start of COVID-19 — and officials in Loudoun County, Virginia, say they may want to retain flexibility in determining the number and destination of routes for the time being.
Tuesday, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors will consider extending the authority delegated to the county administrator through June 2023 to negotiate changes to existing transit services contracts and modify transit services to integrate still-reduced demand with a changing commuter environment, locally and regionally.
In March 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Loudoun County’s commuter bus service was suspended, Metro-connection service was reduced and the local fixed-route service was modified. Regionally, fares for transit services were waived, rear-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 rider demand, through the beginnings of recovery, through the resumption of fare collection in May 2021.
Last month, on March 1, the Board of Supervisors voted to terminate the Declaration of Local Emergency that had been in place since March 2020.
Now, two years after the start of the pandemic, the county is faced with a different, hard-to-predict commuting landscape, particularly in determining future bus service.
Before COVID-19, commuter bus ridership — with longer trips between Loudoun County and D.C., Crystal City and the Pentagon — was between 3,300 and 4,650 riders per day. According to staff, commuter bus ridership is only 9% of pre-COVID levels.
Another area of a continued severe drop is in Metro Connection Service — with buses connecting to Metrorail stations — at only 7% of pre-pandemic levels.
However, local fixed route service — with service between towns and neighborhoods within Loudoun County — remains strong: “Overall, weekly ridership levels are averaging 71.3% of pre-COVID levels, with infrequent surges that approach 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 “ridership levels averaging 78.9% and some days having ridership in excess of pre-pandemic levels.”
While some ridership demand is strong, the supervisors will hear about challenges in forecasting bus ridership.
“Transit use over the next few years will be very difficult to predict,” according to staff research, based on, “changes in travel behaviors across the region, opening of Metrorail service in Loudoun County, continued use of teleworking by the private and public sector, fear of using mass transit, lack of day care services, and modified school schedules.”
As a result, ridership will likely take a year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels, according to the staff report.
And while a starting date still hasn’t been named, the Silver Line Phase 2 extension of Metrorail into Loudoun County is expected to begin in 2022.
“This new alternative for transit service could shift riders from the Commuter Bus Service onto Metrorail, further blurring bus ridership predictions. Ridership decreases, particularly in the
Commuter Bus Program have continued to have a significant negative impact on revenues for transit services,” according to the agenda item.
Two years into the pandemic, with the “new normal” still being determined, the board will vote on whether to extend County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s authority to tweak contracts and services.
Staff says the county is in a financial position to deal with the fluid situation: “The FY 2022 and FY 2023 Adopted Budgets for transit sufficiently fund the requirements of Transit Services at levels which provide the flexibility to increase the number of buses and routes to operate and meet any increased transit service demand.”