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The Nearly Empty Green ART Buses & Taxpayer Subsidies

According to the written report attached to the 1st Quarter FY 2015 performance report, posted at Arlington County's ART transit bus system webpage, "The purpose of ART is to provide fixed route cross-County transit service, connecting neighborhoods with Metrorail stations and major activity centers, complementing existing Metrobus transit service."

A frequent complaint heard by your humble scribe involves how often the little green buses are seen with very few passengers. So, let's go to the proverbial scorecard.

Indeed, the numbers in the latest performance report seem to bear out the complaints heard by the Watchdog. The performance report identifies 14 routes. Ridership information, according to the report, is:

"For first quarter Fiscal Year 2015, 745,099 passengers were transported on ART – a decrease of 0.44 percent in ridership from first quarter Fiscal Year 2014 (748,363). ART 41 remains the strongest route with 35% of average ridership followed by ART 42 with 11%, ART 87 (10%), ART 45 (9%), and ART 77 with 8%. The average number of weekday, Saturday and Sunday passengers respectively was 10,227, 4,139 and 2,450."

Since there are 13 weeks in a quarter, the 745,099 rides should work out to 57,513 riders per week. However, the report shows a weekly average of 16,816 (10,227 + 4,139 + 2,450). We've asked staff to clarify this apparent discrepancy, and will add the information in an update to this post.

Let's delve further into the complaint the little green ART buses frequently seem to run "empty." That 1st Quarter performance report has a column showing passengers per revenue hour. For example, route 41, which covers "Columbia Pike/Ballston/Court House Metro," carries nearly 35% of ART riders, and is considered the system's strongest route. This works out to 42.64 passengers per revenue hour. Assuming that a majority of those riders use an ART 41 bus during rush hour, it's understandable that ridership dwindles down to near-empty during non-rush hour operation.

Route 41 is followed by ART 42 (11%), AFT 87 (10%), ART 45 (9%), and AFT 77 (8%). More specifically, ART 77 had 60,130 riders in the 1st  quarter of FY 2015. According to the route information brochure, ART 77 runs every 30 minutes from 6:00 AM until 11:00 PM between Shirlington and Court House. Further, ART 77's workload works out to only 21.89 riders per revenue hour. So other than rush-hour passengers, is it any wonder the ART 77 buses look to be running empty much of the time?

So who is paying for the operation of tho mostly empty ART buses running around the county? Unfortunately, taxpayers heftily subsidize the county's ART transit system. Fortunately, the performance report shows just which routes are the most heavily subsidized.

Even though the 41 bus carries 35% of the system's passengers, it's "cost recovery percentage" was only 58.13% from July through September of 2014. The three least and three most subsidized ART routes, according to the "% of cost recovery," during the quarter were:

  • Route 41 -- 58.13%
  • Route 45 -- 41.30%
  • Route 42 -- 40.39%
  • Route 61 -- 13.55%
  • Route 53-- 10.81%
  • Route 74 -- 10.72%

The cost recovery percentage for the entire ART system during the first quarter of FY 2015 was 33.64% while there were 20.26 passengers per revenue hour of operation. In other words, every time an ART rider plops $1.75 into the farebox, county taxpayers plop in an additional $3.45 or more. (emphasis added) Sounds like another example of Arlington County's style of income redistribution.

The good news for county taxpayers, if such a thing is possible, is that ART's base fare increased from $1.50 to $1.75 effective July 1, 2014, the beginning of FY 2015. Fares are discounted for seniors, students, and perople with disabilities.

Finally, let's look at the total amount of the subsidies for the ART transit system. In FY 2012, the ART system received $3.09 million from the General Fund while two years later, in FY 2014, ART received $3.67 million from the General Fund, an increase of 18.7%, or 9.4% annually. On the other hand, total county general government expenditures over the same two-year period increased from $1.097 billion to $1.186 billion, an increase of 8.1%, or 4.1% annually. (the latter numbers are from the statistical section of the FY2014 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, or CAFR).

The subsidies could be significantly worse, however. In FY 2014, ART transit revenues included almost $2.2 million in state transit aid, about equal to farebox revenues.

Unfortunately, things will likely get worse for county taxpayers. The local subsidy is expected to increase to $10.4 million by FY 2020, an increase of almost 30% annually from FY 2012. Can anyone in the Arlington County Board Office know how to set priorities?

Fortunately, for residential taxpayers, the County Board tapped the Transportation Capital Fund to achieve some of its urges to tax-and-spend for ART "enhancements," as shown in note 9 of the "guidance and notes" that accompanied the Board's adoption of the FY 2016 budget:

"Transportation–ART Service Enhancements and Supplemental proposal: Change funding source from General Fund to HB2313 local funds for the $155,638 in ART Service Enhancements in the Manager’s base budget. Fund the additional $425,000 in supplemental ART Service Enhancements that were presented to the Board with HB2313 local funds."

An audit of the ART transit system should be Job #1 for the new county auditor, if he or she is ever hired. Growls readers can express their thoughts about these ART system subsidies to members of the Arlington County Board, not to mention the subsidies received by the Artisphere's "patrons of the arts" which amounted to $41 each. So take a few minutes to tell Board members they need to learn how to prioritize county spending. If they had, county taxpayers could have seen a cut in the real estate tax rate. Just click-on the link below:

  • Call the County Board office at (703) 228-3130.

And tell them ACTA sent you.

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