Stephania Melo, a 24-year-old Ecuadorian who lives in Quito, has visited family members in DC on a few occasions recently, and each time she has taken a Bolt Bus down from her original stateside destination, New York City, where she also has family. On those trips, the bus had always dropped her off at the same location: the old convention-center parking lot at Tenth and H streets, Northwest. But a few weeks ago, after construction finally got under way on the massive CityCenterDC development, her bus deposited passengers on the curb at F Street and New Jersey Avenue, Northwest, a location unfamiliar to Melo—not to mention to her aunt, who was expecting to pick up her niece at CityCenter.
“My aunt was picking us up and was waiting for us for an hour,” Melo says while waiting at Bolt Bus’s new departure location for a bus back to New York. Because Melo doesn’t own a cell phone, she borrowed a stranger’s and eventually connected with her aunt.
Pickup and drop-off locations for Bolt Bus and its principal competitor, Megabus, have changed several times since they both began serving Washington in 2008. The two lines first shared a stop at 11th Street, Northwest, near G Street, then moved over to G Street, Northwest, between Ninth and Tenth streets, and now to the CityCenter lot. To confuse matters more, Bolt Bus, along with DC2NY and Washington Deluxe, began to offer additional service from Union Station in January 2010. Then this February, with construction beginning on CityCenter, Bolt Bus and Megabus had to move yet again. The former divided its service between the F Street and Union Station locations, while the latter moved to a lot at North Capitol and K streets.
The next time Melo returns to DC, she’s likely to find herself disembarking at yet another new location, because Bolt Bus eliminated its F Street stop. As of last week, the company now operates only out of the parking garage at Union Station. Megabus, meanwhile, remains at the North Capitol lot, though Dale Moser, president of Megabus operator Coach USA, confirms that his company is “in discussions to relocate to the bus parking deck of Union Station,” adding that he hopes to do so “within the next few months.”
These moves are part of a larger District plan to regulate the many intercity bus services that have sprung up here in recent years, and—if possible—to consolidate them at Union Station. Eulois Cleckley, manager of freight and motor-carrier planning for the DC Department of Transportation, estimates that there are about a dozen such services serving Washington, and most of them operate curbside. Moving them to the Union Station garage, which has nearly 100 bus spaces, would take those buses off District streets, where they can easily impede traffic, annoy pedestrians with noise and exhaust fumes, and occupy rare—and, to the city, valuable—parking spaces.
As of now, says Cleckley, “we don’t have any regulations that specifically regulate this service as being offered from the curb.” But that’s about to change. DDOT plans to require curbside buses to pay an annual public-space rental fee and to require permits for all curbside stops. The cost of those permits would take into account money the city would otherwise earn from the parking meters. The annual cost will range from $8,000 to $10,000 for less frequent service and $70,000 to $80,000 for more frequent service, according to Cleckley.
The goal is not to tax buses to boost city coffers, he says. Instead, it’s about management: “We want these services to continue in this city, but we want safe and effective and efficient locations that make sense.”
Megabus customers may have to wait a while longer. Currently, the company’s double-decker buses are too tall for the garage, but Cleckley says there are discussions about increasing the ceiling clearance. If Megabus moves there—and if other companies, looking to avoid paying fees for curbside stops, follow suit—then Union Station could be poised to become an intercity bus hub where competition reigns.
Of course, while Yelp users, by definition, have their opinions—Bolt Bus and DC2NY scores significantly higher than Megabus—it could be that most customers don’t have strong preferences, either for particular bus companies or particular stop locations in DC. After all, when you pay $20 for a four-hour-plus bus ride to New York, what do you expect? As one Bolt Bus passenger, Paloma Guzman, puts it, “New York doesn’t have [an indoor stop] either. You sort of get used to standing on street corners when you do this.”