City Drops Planned Circulator Cut

Photo by Brian Kapur/The Current
The DC Circulator bus system is popular for its $1 fares and frequent service.
The DC Circulator bus system is popular for its $1 fares and frequent service.

By Grace Bird
Current Staff Writer

After neighbors rallied to protect lower Wisconsin Avenue’s DC Circulator bus service, the D.C. Department of Transportation has backed off plans to terminate its Georgetown-Union Station route at M Street NW.

But while the Circulator will continue to travel as far north as Whitehaven Parkway, the agency also announced last week a series of other proposed changes to the popular six-line bus system, which offers $1 rides and 10-minute headways.

Notably, the agency has proposed removing a number of stops from the Georgetown-Union Station route, and also hopes to shift the line’s eastern terminus outdoors from a Union Station parking garage. Additionally, it’s moving forward with long-term plans to offer Circulator service on U Street NW.

Meanwhile, no changes have been proposed for the Woodley Park-Adams Morgan-McPherson Square route, and the agency said it will continue to evaluate the National Mall line’s low winter ridership to determine whether possible adjustments are needed.

Due to “fleet and facility needs,” officials are focusing on improving the existing system rather than expanding it, at least for now, according to Transportation Department spokesperson Michelle Phipps-Evans.  

Changes that do not require additional buses may be implemented within about a year, but others — including the long-sought extension of the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn line to U Street — remain a few years off.

For the Georgetown-Union Station route, the Transportation Department recommends a series of bus stop eliminations to alleviate traffic congestion and improve service reliability. They are:
■ Eastbound and westbound New York Avenue at 9th Street NW;
■ Eastbound K Street at 11th Street NW;
■ Eastbound Pennsylvania Avenue at 21st Street NW;
■ Westbound 21st Street at K Street NW;
■ Eastbound Pennsylvania at 28th Street NW;
■ Eastbound M Street at Thomas Jefferson Street NW;
■ Eastbound and westbound Wisconsin Avenue at P Street NW; and
■ Eastbound and westbound Wisconsin at R Street NW.

Also, left-turn signals may be installed at two intersections: Pennsylvania Avenue and 20th Street NW, as well as North Capitol and H streets.

Initiated in 2005, the Georgetown-Union Station route travels 9.9 miles from NoMa to Burleith. Low ridership, as well as overlap with Metrobus’ 30 lines, led officials to consider shifting the Circulator’s turnaround point to the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW—the heart of Georgetown’s commercial district.

However, neighbors and local representatives — who’d grown reliant on the Circulator’s frequent, inexpensive service — fought back against the proposal. In a Transportation Department survey, 66 percent of respondents called for retaining the existing route. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B (Glover Park, Cathedral Heights) and ANC 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) submitted resolutions over the summer urging the Transportation Department to save the Wisconsin Avenue NW section of the route, citing a lack of public transportation options in the area. Without a Metrorail station, the Circulator is the most efficient way for many residents to cross the city using public transportation.

While the Circulator has sometimes been criticized for poor maintenance of its buses and slipping service reliability, many residents from the Georgetown area spoke highly of the system. News of the decision not to eliminate the Wisconsin Avenue service was even greeted with brief applause at last week’s ANC 3B meeting.

Mary Levy, who moved to Burleith in 1971, uses the Circulator multiple times a week to travel to downtown meetings as well as Union Station. In her view, the Circulator is less crowded and more frequent than Metrobuses—a particularly important attribute at nighttime and during D.C. winters.

“The Wisconsin Avenue buses are irregular and unpredictable,” Levy told The Current. “They’ve improved somewhat … but you’ll get three of them coming at once and then none for a while. The Circulator comes really quite predictably and I can rely on it.”

To ANC 3B chair Jackie Blumenthal, Glover Park’s public transportation options are not adequate. Blumenthal told The Current that she hoped the Circulator wouldn’t merely be preserved but would also be extended to the Washington National Cathedral — a change the Transportation Department had proposed a few years ago, though the agency’s recent leaders have said it’s not feasible.

“The Circulator is faster than the regular [Metro] buses that tend to be much slower and much more crowded,” Blumenthal said.

Meanwhile, ANC 2E member Ed Solomon said service needs in upper Georgetown have been growing rapidly, citing the reopening of Duke Ellington School of the Arts and an upcoming redevelopment at the site of the former Holiday Inn at 2101 Wisconsin Ave. NW.  

“I received a lot of emails and phone calls from the community about their concerns over discontinuing the service,” Solomon said in an interview. He added that he was “just thrilled” that the Transportation Department had reversed its decision to shorten the route, opting instead to study the 30s Metrobuses further to reduce overlap with the Circulator service and ensure that the services complement one another.

It will also be easier for Georgetown residents to reach U Street NW in a few years, if plans advance for the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route’s planned expansion there. Established in 2010, the line is the shortest in the Circulator system yet is the third most popular, serving 1.07 million riders in 2016.

The U Street NW extension would increase the cost of operating the Dupont Circle-Georgetown-Rosslyn route to about $6.6 million, a $3.2 million increase. Because the extension would require six additional Circulator buses—and the system currently lacks a sufficient number of vehicles—the proposal won’t be implemented for several years.

According to Phipps-Evans, the District created the Circulator to encourage non-bus riders to hop on for short trips, so officials have no plans to change its low fares. When service began in 2005, Circulator rides ran $1 or $0.50 for Metrorail transfers — and the price has not changed since, even as Metrobuses recently rose to $2 per trip.

Other currently proposed changes affect Circulator lines outside of Northwest. Officials are accepting comments on all the proposals at dccirculator.com/tdp2017 until Oct. 13.

This article appears in the Sept. 20 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.

1 Comment For This Article

Diane Salisbury

They are propsing eliminating bus stops that we previously fought tooth and nail to retain, particularly the stops at Wisconsin and P. Also aat Wisconsin and R and at Pennsylvania and 21st, a very important stop for people using the medical buildings in that area.