New bus line considered between National Harbor and Alexandria

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New bus line considered between National Harbor and Alexandria
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Correction 6:45 p.m., May 12: Yon Lambert said he expects the MGM National Harbor casino to be open by the end of this year, and that negotiations on a bus route to and from Alexandria are ongoing and dependent in part on the casino’s timeline for opening.

By Chris Teale (Photo/Jon Bilous)

City officials are in negotiations with their counterparts in Prince George’s County to establish a new bus route connecting Alexandria with National Harbor just across the Potomac River.

The two communities currently are connected by a water taxi run by the Potomac Riverboat Company, and National Harbor only has one bus line available — the NH1 — that links it to the Southern Avenue Metro station in Prince George’s County.

A line between Alexandria and National Harbor would traverse the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and likely take riders to and from the King Street or Eisenhower Avenue Metro stations. Both stations are shorter distances from National Harbor than Southern Avenue.

The new MGM National Harbor casino and entertainment resort is expected to add 3,600 jobs to the region and an influx of visitors when it opens later this year. In addition, National Harbor employs about 7,000 workers, while the nearby Tanger Outlets shopping center added 900 when it opened in 2014.

With so many people who could use transit to get to work and the ability to move visitors between two major tourism hubs, officials in the Port City see a great opportunity.

“The way that we see it in Alexandria is that there is a benefit to Alexandrians to provide transit access to National Harbor and MGM because of the employment opportunities there, but also because of the opportunity to bring visitors from those locations into the city and to allow them to experience Old Town,” said Yon Lambert, the city’s director of transportation and environmental services.

A bus link initially was proposed in 2013, but would have replaced the NH1 with a route that connected to Northern Virginia. That plan was widely criticized by officials and residents in Prince George’s County, and was withdrawn in November of that year.

The Washington Post reported early last month that a new line could cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million in annual operating costs. Lambert explained the figure, which would likely be shared across jurisdictions, was dependent on a number of factors.

“The way that it starts is that we begin to frame out where the service will be provided, and how frequent we want the headways to be,” he said. “You essentially figure out where you want the service to go and what level of service you want to provide. Then once you do that, you start to get a sense of what the capital costs are, and by that I mean how many buses we are going to need, and how many operators we are going to need.

“That helps us settle on potential subsidy increases that might be needed by the jurisdictions or any type of capital investment.”

In its report to city council, presented at a legislative meeting in March, the MGM Readiness Task Force said it discussed the city establishing a public transit service between the city and National Harbor for $4 million in funding, but that it did not recommend it as the city prepares for MGM’s opening. Lambert said instead that the task force recommended continued work with other jurisdictions.

Lambert pointed to the city’s previous cross-jurisdictional efforts with establishing Metroway as an indication of its ability to work across borders. Metroway connects the Braddock Road Metro station with the Pentagon City Metro station in Arlington through Potomac Yard on U.S. Route 1, and includes dedicated lanes along some stretches. Lambert said the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority again could provide the perfect forum for collaboration, given its experience in such matters.

WMATA spokesman Richard Jordan said in an email that while jurisdictions have discussed the bus link, there has been no decision from the authority to advance a service yet. City Councilor Paul Smedberg, an alternate director for Virginia on the WMATA board, said details would have to be finalized before direct benefits could be identified and analyzed.

“I’m not really sure about the details of how they plan to view the system, its operations, where it would start, where it would end, would it travel in a loop or just go to one point back and forth?” Smedberg asked. “It’s conceptual at this point.”

Across the river, officials with National Harbor appear excited at the prospect of improved transit links with other jurisdictions, even though a lot of work lies ahead.

“It’s hard to believe that all we have is one bus route,” National Harbor developer Jon Peterson told The Washington Post last month. “There’s a lot of regionalism discussion that
is going on these days… if we can start off with something as simple as having a bus connecting Virginia and Maryland that’s a start.”

Lambert said the casino could be in operation as early as the end of this year, depending on various factors. He added that there is plenty of desire to make a cross-jurisdictional bus route work.

“We’re used to working through cost-benefit analysis, and most importantly crossing that initial threshold of whether we see some validity in the need to provide a transit option,” Lambert said. “It seems like we’ve all done that now, and the devil’s going to be in the details.”

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