The long promised, and long delayed, extension of the Georgetown-Union Station Circulator bus route to the Cathedral is not likely to happen any time soon, if ever.
At the ANC meeting this week, the head of DDOT, Leif Dormsjo, spoke and accepted questions from the audience. GM asked him about the planned extension and whether he could give an estimate on when it would occur. His answer was not encouraging.
A bit of background: DDOT has never wanted this extension. It doesn’t like the fact that the Circulator goes up to Whitehaven in the first place. It has several times in the past tried to cut off the Wisconsin Ave. segment but backed off each time. (The original route did not include the leg up Wisconsin Ave. north of M. When it first was rolled out, the bus came up Wisconsin and took a right on M St. back downtown. When the BID got rid of its Foggy Bottom “Blue Bus”, the Circulator was extended up Wisconsin.)
The justification for cutting the route is that the ridership is too low on that leg. And as a consequence the per-rider subsidy (i.e. the amount the city has to pay per rider to keep the fleet going) is really high.
The reason CAG and others have pushed back against the cut is that the Circulator has become a crucial part of residential Georgetown’s transit options. And for a large swath of Georgetown residents, it only makes sense to get on the Circulator on Wisconsin Ave. Cuts to the 30 Series buses over the years make a robust Circulator up and down Wisconsin Ave. all the more crucial.
And Ward Three would like to get in on it too. That’s why Councilmember Mary Cheh passed legislation several years ago mandating the extension of this route up to the Cathedral. In GM’s opinion, this would be great. It would add more useful destinations at the end of the line, which would drive more ridership. Anecdotally, GM often takes buses up to Glover Park for diner on weeknights, and he often has to watch several 30 Series buses pass his stop because they’re too full. But the empty Circulator buses don’t really add much utility, since they stop short of Glover Park.
But DDOT hasn’t acted on Cheh’s mandated extension beyond drawing some lines on a map. Part of this is the agency’s reluctance to take up this extension, and part of this is that there are several other extensions the agency really does want to pursue (such as the extension of the Rosslyn-Dupont line to U St.). But the largest reason all the extensions have been put on pause is that an audit found that the Circulator fleet was shockingly out of date, and a large number of buses needed to be replaced. So before the fleet could be expanded to enable the extensions, the fleet needed to be renewed.
Moreover, once the larger fleet is bought, a larger bus depot would be needed. And that depot hasn’t been built yet. Heck, they haven’t even identified a location yet.
All this was rehashed a bit by the DDOT Director at the ANC meeting. But GM wanted to know, understanding all of that, what does the time frame of expansion look like?
Rather than talk about the uncertainties of all the moving parts, Dormjo was pretty frank. Notwithstanding Cheh’s legislation, DDOT still doesn’t want to do this expansion. The agency believes the cost per rider is still too high, and that further duplicating long WMATA bus routes is not the purpose of the Circulator system. He even stated that he thinks a grand re-think of the whole system is in order.
In other words, not only will the extension to the Cathedral be delayed, it probably won’t ever get built.