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F.C. Wrestles With Manager’s Plan to Kill GEORGE Bus Line

Prospects of terminating the local bus system, known as GEORGE, operated by the City of Falls Church, has drawn sharp reaction from disparate groups in the Falls Church community, ranging from those who feel subsidizing each ride to the tune of almost $8 is an exorbitant burden on local taxpayers, to others who feel the cost is worth the cost to ease the “carbon footprint” of its users.

F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields’ proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget, now being hammered out by the City Council, called for eliminating the local system altogether, saving almost two cents on the real estate tax rate in the global recession-driven toughest year ever for the City’s finances.

Falls Church’s venerable Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS), according to a statement issued last week by former president Barry Buschow, went on record in support of keeping the system intact, arguing that modest adjustments in the hours the system operates, combined with a small fare increase, could cut its current $568,000 cost almost in half.

While the system has often been touted for its economic development potential, Gary LaPorta, past president of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, issued a statement this week that, contrary to some reports, the Chamber has taken no formal position on GEORGE, either way.

That may not be the case before a final decision is made by the City Council in late April, however. There are those, such as the News-Press in its editorial last week, who believe the system should be retained, but limited to short runs during evening hours only linking the East Falls Church Metro station to the Rt. 7 and 29 intersection, where it can attract customers to the State Theatre and six immediately-contiguous restaurants. Not only would costs be dramatically cut, but revenue growth, both in terms of fares and indirectly through enhanced business activity, would accrue.

Almost every mixed use project approved by the Council for the City’s commercial corridors since 2001 has included a developer “proffer” of funds to help support GEORGE, on grounds it attracts business to the locations.

But the fact is that only 70,911 fares were paid on GEORGE last year, and with the City’s taxpayers out $568,000 to run the system, that adds up to a taxpayer subsidy of $7.89 per trip. It is like City taxpayers bearing more than the cost of 70,911 free cab rides for the relatively few who use GEORGE.

(In fact, if the 70,911 trips were broken down in terms of daily morning and evening commuter use during weekdays for 50 weeks a year — a total of 500 trips — then the number of such commuters would be only 142 out of 11,400 total City residents).

Even cutting the current cost of GEORGE in half is too much to ask of taxpayers, many living on fixed incomes or retirement savings that have been decimated by the collapsed stock market, to pay in the current brutal economic environment, many say.

GEORGE (the name was first coined by a youthful City resident as an acronym built around the concept of “going environmentally green”) was virtually star-crossed from its inception in 1999.

According to the City of Falls Church web site, the City launched the system in 2004 as an environmentally-friendly clean diesel system with routes limited to the City’s 2.2 square miles.

But in reality, the inception for GEORGE came in late 1999, when the City Council accepted $1 million in a combination of federal, Metro and Dominion Power funds to allow the City to function as a small, manageable incubator for a new technology.

The technology was a combination turbine and electric battery-driven engine built by a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based company and known as “ElecTrek.” The technology had been used successfully in stand-still functions, but had never been deployed to move something like a bus.

Under the terms, the City would be provided four “ElecTrek”-powered buses, to operate two at any given time.

While the main debate for the Council was the best routes for such a system, there was only small concern expressed for the notion that, at an estimated cost of $400,000 a year to operate, the federal money would dry up in just two-and-a-half years, leaving the City to have to pick up the tab after that.

“City Council Mulls Route Options for New Electric Buses,” was the headline in the Nov. 11, 1999 edition of the News-Press. The News-Press mulled the revenue generating potential in its editorial in that edition, “Route Doubt.”

The lure of free federal funds, appeasing City neighborhoods, possibly offering an economic development incentive and being environmentally “cutting edge” was too good to pass up.

The only problem was that the technology didn’t work. It was a miserable failure. First, contrary to promises the buses would be ready almost right away, it was not until over a year later when they finally showed. Then they constantly broke down.

In the May 17, 2001 edition of the News-Press, the headline was, “Long-Delayed Electric Bus Project Has 45-Day ‘Do or Die’ Final Test,” followed by a headline in the July 12, 2001 edition, “Electric Buses Flunk Test, No Service Soon.”

The Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) declared the technology a failure, noting that the buses could operate only 500 hours between “maintenance events,” compared to a diesel bus’ average of one every 13,000 hours.

In 2004, the City moved ahead with revamping the GEORGE buses with clean diesel engines that they’ve operated with since.

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