Circulator bus eyed for cuts, extensions to lines

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The DC Circulator runs along M Street NW in Georgetown. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2017)

A series of changes under consideration for the DC Circulator bus network would affect two Northwest lines — eliminating Wisconsin Avenue service north of M Street NW, and running for the first time along U Street NW to Howard University.

The D.C. Department of Transportation is currently surveying residents online and near some bus routes on these changes, as well as on proposals affecting lines outside of Northwest and on the possibility of enhancements to the Circulator bus fleet.

The popular Circulator service is intended as a user-friendly complement to Metrobus, with $1 fares and reliable 10-minute headways for six simple routes serving high-demand locations. The new proposals come from the latest transit development plan by the Transportation Department, an effort every three years to review existing lines and the potential for new ones. If the new Circulator changes receive enough public support, they would go into effect in spring 2018.

The first proposal in Northwest would affect the Union Station-Georgetown line of the Circulator, which in Georgetown currently travels from the waterfront up the Wisconsin Avenue hill to a turnaround at Whitehaven Parkway NW. As proposed, the buses would instead turn right on M Street and return downtown, avoiding the northern section of Georgetown’s commercial area.

The Transportation Department says this change will improve the buses’ reliability by avoiding a high-traffic stretch that can lead to delays, and that riders can easily take a Wisconsin Avenue Metrobus to reach the same destinations.

The other Northwest proposal for the Circulator — also recommended three years ago but never implemented — would extend the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn line.

That route currently turns around at 19th and N streets just south of Dupont Circle; the extension would instead go through the circle and then take 18th Street north to U Street, then follow U Street to 8th Street NW, circling around near Howard University.

The Transportation Department says this extension is more valuable than Wisconsin Avenue in upper Georgetown because its path isn’t replicated by other direct transit links.

There are no proposed changes to the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square or the National Mall routes.

The D.C. Department of Transportation surveyed riders in Georgetown about the possible changes on June 3. The survey is also available online. (Brady Holt/The Current/June 2017)

While there are no evident objections to adding Circulator service along U Street, the Georgetown, Burleith and Glover Park communities are gearing up to fight for their bus line.

“Our residents want easy access to public transportation,” Joe Gibbons, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) told The Current. “We don’t feel it’s redundant — it’s more access. At times when people are being asked to be more green and use public transportation, we should be increasing public transportation, not reducing it.”

Will Handsfield, transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, added that the Wisconsin Avenue service is valuable for businesses located uphill from M Street. The BID pays $10,000 a year to provide free northbound Circulator rides on weekends up Wisconsin Avenue, bringing an estimated 7,500 riders to the less-bustling part of Georgetown.

He said he’s optimistic that Wisconsin Avenue service will remain, in part due to the logistical benefit of the Whitehaven turnaround — it provides a place for bus drivers to park and use the restroom, which crowded M Street wouldn’t easily accommodate.

Meanwhile, Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans will also fight for Circulator service, his spokesperson Tom Lipinsky told The Current. “Without a Metro station, the Circulator is a critical transit option for the thousands of workers that travel to and from Georgetown, Burleith, and Glover Park every day,” he wrote in an email.

In the previous plan from 2014, the Circulator’s Wisconsin Avenue service would have been extended rather than reduced — running through Glover Park up to the Washington National Cathedral.

Transportation Department director Leif Dormsjo, who took over the agency after the previous Circulator plan was finalized, said the bus network shouldn’t stray from its “governing principles.”

“The idea is it’s not supposed to be a Metrobus-like product,” Dormsjo said at the May 1 meeting of ANC 2E, before any specific proposals were released. “It’s supposed to support the goals of supporting business activity and retail activity. The Metrobus routes are designed to support morning and evening rush-hour activity. … We want to support a consistent level of service across the whole day.”

It’s a frequent refrain for Dormsjo, who hears repeated requests for Circulator services from neighborhoods that don’t have it. At a D.C. Council hearing in March, Ward 4 member Brandon Todd said his constituents were looking longingly at other wards’ Circulator buses. Dormsjo replied that the agency’s data would have to support such additions — and that new Circulator service is a tough sell in locations that already include multiple Metrobus lines.

And at the ANC 2E meeting, Dormsjo’s response to a question about the possible Cathedral extension foreshadowed the agency’s subsequent proposal for Wisconsin Avenue.

“From a bus service perspective, that extension doesn’t make much sense,” Dormsjo said of the Cathedral proposal. “The longer we stretch those routes out, the more they start to act like Metrobus routes.”

A past issue that has prevented expanding the Circulator was the lack of a dedicated maintenance facility, according to Dormsjo. The difficulty of finding a large industrial space in D.C. has previously stymied such efforts, and Dormsjo has said he would oppose any Circulator expansion without such a facility. But Transportation Department spokesperson Maura Danehey told The Current the agency is determined to overcome the challenges and expects to identify a site to purchase or lease for the maintenance yard by the end of September.

The survey — covering both the amenities and the proposed routes — is available online at dccirculator.com/tdp2017, and participants are eligible to win a $50 SmarTrip card.