There are many frustratingly inefficient Metrobus routes in D.C., but the worst of the major ones is probably the 70/71 line, which runs along the 7th Street/Georgia Avenue corridor. The D.C. Department of Transportation—which insists on calling itself DDOT, as if Columbus hadn’t been credited with discovering North America—estimates that buses on the route average 8 mph and that a trip from the National Archives to Silver Spring takes 58 minutes. The latter is the scheduled time, not the actual one; when Georgia Avenue is clogged, which is much of the time, the journey can easily take 90 minutes or more. So a new system that would cut the trip to 49 minutes would be a significant boon for the corridor’s regular riders.

Yesterday, DDOT and Metro invited riders and other interested citizens to Brightwood’s Emery Recreation Center for a “workshop” on a proposed “rapid bus” line that would supplement the 70/71. As with so many of the “listening sessions” and other community meetings the D.C. government holds these days, public involvement was being sought only after the decisions had already been made. DDOT has already committed to rapid bus, an idea it borrowed from other cities, notably L.A. The buses are supposed to start running in late September, initially only during rush hours. The fares would be identical to those on regular Metrobuses, and service on the parallel 70/71 would not be reduced. Although the buses would be distinctively marked, they would be operated by Metro.

The rapid bus proposal includes a few technological refinements, but it’s essentially a standard express-bus system. Where the 70 makes a maximum of 54 stops between Archives and Silver Spring, the rapid would have only 14 between Archives and the intersection of Georgia and Eastern Avenues—15 if it continues to downtown Silver Spring, which is the only material issue still under discussion. Metrobuses pick up and discharge every block or so; rapid stops would be one-third to one-half-mile apart. There would be no express lanes or other significant changes, although on 7th and 9th Streets downtown the buses would use the lanes already established for the Circulator route (generally ignored by motorists).

The rapid would benefit from a “signal priority” system that will automatically hold a green light for a few seconds longer when the added time would allow a bus to clear an intersection and keep moving. That’s expected to decrease travel times by “more than 10 percent,” according to DDOT mass transit administrator RoseMary Covington.

The other technological refinement would be real-time information about bus arrivals, expected to be in operation by fall 2007. Each stop would have an electronic sign, similar to those on Metrorail, indicating the arrival times of the next several buses. DDOT has previously committed to adding such signs at a few major Metrobus transfer points, but the Georgia Avenue rapid would be the only route to offer arrival information at every stop.

The current timeline for expanding the Georgia Avenue rapid calls for full-day service by fall 2007, followed in early 2008 by the construction of “bulbouts” at selected stops. The latter would allow the low-floor buses to simply pull to a stop—without pulling over—and unload and load quickly.

Covington says the annual operating subsidy for the rush-hour service will be a mere $1 million—$1.1 million if the buses travel all the way to Silver Spring—which of course they should, since the latter is a major transfer point. DDOT is also considering rapid service on Pennsylvania and Rhode Island Avenues, and the H Street/Benning Road route. Expect citizens to be invited to “workshops” to plan those routes as soon as DDOT has already decided to implement them.