RESTON, Va. (WUSA9)--In these dog days of summer Washington metropolitan area commuters are catching a reprieve. Buses and trains are less crowded than usual. The heart of the August vacation season and the congressional recess are offering congestion-weary travelers a break before the post-Labor Day crush comes down on them.
In this friendlier commuting climate the Silver Line is starting to shape traveling patterns in Northern Virginia, however tentatively. Three weeks after the first rush hour train departed the Wiehle-Reston East station, people are adjusting to new commuting times and costs, determining if the $3 billion rail line and related bus routes work for them.
For some, the answer is already in: the Silver Line is not an improvement.
"You like to pay as little as possible, and now I am paying more. And you like to have a shorter commute so you can spend more time with your family, and now I am spending more time commuting," said Jim Spencer, a federal employee who lives in the Reston area and is now one of thousands of Fairfax Connector riders being bused to Reston to take the Silver Line instead of West Falls Church to take the Orange Line.
"That is the one comment I have heard from other riders. They wish there was the alternative of going to West Falls Church still," said Spencer, referring to the 11 Connector routes that no longer drop passengers off at the Orange Line station.
The change in the bottom line for Spencer and others who travel during the morning rush hour is significant: his peak fare from West Falls Church into downtown DC was $4.20. Now from Reston on the Silver Line he is paying $5.90. That equals $17 a week, or $816 a year.
Spencer said his commute (bus plus rail) that used to take 50 minutes now takes 59 minutes, meaning he will spend an additional 72 hours a year going to and from work.
"The only real alternative would be to drive in, or instead of taking the bus, to drive to a Metro parking garage – and that would be more expensive," Spencer said.
While Spencer is not alone in lamenting the increased cost and time incurred by being bused to Reston instead of West Falls Church, others say their new commutes are saving them time.
"It used to take me about an hour-fifteen plus minutes, once I got on the bus till I got off the Metro. Now it is taking me about an hour," said Larry Hamm, a Reston resident who commutes daily into D.C.
Commuters weigh their options based on a number of factors: cost, time, convenience, comfort.
To Hamm, who lives in a different part of the county than Spencer, the Fairfax Connector provides a 5-minute bus ride to Wiehle-Reston East to transfer to the Silver Line, a big improvement over his past trip.
"Convenience, convenience," said Hamm, responding to a question as to why he chooses the Silver Line. "There are a few times a month when I drive into the District and it's usually a hassle."
Fairfax County transportation officials say it is too early to draw conclusions about commuting patterns with the Silver Line in its infancy, having launched in the quietest time of the year when kids are off from school and families are away on vacation.
Fairfax Connector ridership dropped six percent to an average 207,000 weekly trips in the two-week period ending August 9, down from the 220,000 weekly trips recorded in the same period the year prior. Officials caution that passengers are trying out the new routes and it will take months before ridership begins to stabilize.
More cars are being parked at the park and ride lots in the Dulles corridor, which include Reston North, Reston South, Herndon-Monroe, Sunset Hills and the massive underground parking facility at Wiehle-Reston East.
Year to year, the total number of parked cars has increased from 2,600 to 3,000/day, according to the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, up 15 percent.
The increase is believed to be the result of the additional 1,500 parking spaces in the corridor. Prior to the opening to the Silver Line, most of the park and ride lots were at or near capacity.
The Silver Line is also responsible for the large increase in rail ridership in Fairfax County: weekday Metrorail boardings have increased from an average of 28,828 in August 2013 to an average of 36,981 in August 2014 (28 percent), according to the Fairfax County DOT.
So three weeks into the Silver Line's operations, more people are getting to Metro by park and ride lots, while Fairfax Connector ridership is dropping slightly. Again, officials caution these changes alone do not account for the total Metrorail ridership changes at stations in central and northern Fairfax County.
When the Silver Line launched, entries at West Falls Church, Vienna, and Dunn Loring dropped by more than 6,700 during morning rush hour.
Positive changes have been noticed at the last three stops along the Orange Line. Trains are said to be less crowded, a combination of vacation schedules and the diversion of riders to the Silver Line. Empty parking spaces are more plentiful at West Falls Church.