Plans advance for 16th Street bus changes

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16th Street NW is a major Metrobus corridor. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

A controversial four-year plan to overhaul the popular 16th Street NW bus service and improve chronic issues of unreliability and overcrowding is moving ahead with some support, though residents at a recent community meeting expressed concerns about shifts in some service.

A planning study completed in April 2016 by the D.C. Department of Transportation recommended adding peak-period bus lanes and off-board fare payments, consolidating bus stops and lengthening bus zones. The study area covers the stretch of 16th between Arkansas Avenue and H Street NW, where 20,000 people take Metrobus every weekday.

“16th Street is one of the busiest corridors in the District,” Transportation Department project manager Spring Worth told The Current. “There are a lot of difficult choices, but ones we have to face to improve the service.”

Changes to 16th Street bus schedules are set for implementation June 25 by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, in a “cost-neutral manner,” according to service planner Kristine Marsh. “The total number of service hours for the corridor is exactly the same,” Marsh told residents — aside from a modest increase in late-night service to accommodate Metrorail schedule changes.

In conjunction with the changes, Metro is also shifting some 16th Street Metrobus service from the local S1, S2 and S4 lines to the S9 limited-stop commuter route. The S9 will also begin running for the first time in the middle of the day on weekdays and on Saturdays. The shift to favor commuters received little opposition when Metro proposed it as part of its budget, but some residents objected at last Thursday’s meeting that their nearest bus stop would see less frequent service.

“So you’re just going to tell us what you’re going to do, and we’re going to sit here like cows?” resident Robert Robinson called out.

“We’ll be closely watching how this works,” Marsh replied. “If things aren’t working well, we’ll make adjustments.”

Plans to remove certain bus stops along the corridor proved especially contentious during last week’s meeting. Reducing the number of stops allows for faster service and Metro requires no more than five bus stops per mile — compared to six or seven on some stretches of 16th Street, Worth told The Current.

The proposal eliminates eight stops of a total 34 in the 2.7-mile stretch of 16th Street between Arkansas and H. Following the study, three southbound stops are set for removal — Newton, Lamont and V streets NW — as well as five northbound stops: L, Q, V, Lamont and Newton streets NW. The study can be accessed at tinyurl.com/16th-street-study.

Katharine Tyler, president of the Mount Pleasant Village aging-in-place organization, opposed any intent to remove bus stops.

“We may only be in our 60s and our 70s now, but in a few years we’ll be in our 80s,” Tyler said. “It’s going to be a huge handicap and a disadvantage for members of our community.”

Ellen Brody, who lives near 16th and Newton streets NW, was equally opposed to plans to eliminate her bus stop.

“For a year and a half we’ve been coming to these meetings. We say our piece, and they don’t listen to anything that we say. That’s why it’s so lively. It’s like, what’s the point?” Brody told The Current. “They want to eliminate one of the bus stops in front of the [Mount Pleasant] Library. Who does that? Who eliminates a bus stop in front of a library?”

Worth said that bus stop removals aren’t coming until the last part of a three-phase plan, likely not for several years.

The idea of a rush-hour bus lane, long under consideration for 16th Street, saw less disagreement during the meeting. However, south of U Street, the four-lane roadway is 2 to 3 feet shy of the 50 feet required for a fifth.

Jon Stewart of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1D (Mount Pleasant) expressed strong support for a bus lane. “If you don’t have a dedicated bus lane in that stretch, wards 1 and 4 are going to go to war with Ward 2, because we want that dedicated bus lane,” Stewart said.

Kishan Putta, a former member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle) and longtime bus advocate, was equally enthusiastic about the lane. “There’s no need for war,” Putta joked in response to Stewart’s threat.

However, Charles Bien, who lives near 16th and V streets, opposed a bus lane, arguing that 16th Street had one several decades ago that “just didn’t work.” Instead, he recommended shortening the S bus routes during rush hour. “The bus goes all the way to Silver Spring. It doesn’t make sense,” Bien told The Current.

Worth said she could not comment on 16th street’s former bus lane.

The next public meeting on the four-year implementation plan will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 27, at the Mount Pleasant Library.