An Agriculture Department shuttle picks up passengers outside the department's headquarters. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)
Agencies are wasting millions of dollars a year ferrying Washington-area employees on shuttle buses that are often two-thirds empty.
Now the Obama administration is looking at consolidating use of the shuttle buses as a way to save money and cut carbon emissions.
"There's a potential to save millions of dollars a year by consolidating those [efforts] and sharing shuttles and routes between agencies," said Cyndi Vallina, a senior program analyst at the Office of Management and Budget.
Responding to President Obama's green government executive order, the General Services Administration detailed the potential savings of consolidating shuttle bus services in an April report. That report is undergoing an interagency review, Vallina said. GSA declined to comment.
Roughly 158 shuttle buses are operating in the nation's capital each day, transporting employees at 18 federal agencies from one office to another or back and forth from subway stations. Many of the bus routes overlap, yet buses will run mostly empty rather than pick up employees from neighboring agencies because there is little if any coordination between agencies.
The proposal to consolidate shuttle routes has generated more feedback from agencies than any other issue raised in the executive order, Vallina said. That executive order ramped up federal efforts to cut energy and water consumption and for the first time required agencies to set greenhouse gas reduction targets.
Agencies appear evenly divided, with some opposed to giving up their shuttle services and others open to the idea as a way to save resources, Vallina said. Some agencies use the shuttles as a courier service for moving documents from one location to another and are concerned that some of that service could be lost if they're required to give up some routes. Others expressed security concerns about having employees from multiple agencies riding on the same bus and making stops at multiple locations.
Some agencies could find themselves relying more heavily on shuttles in coming years, especially as the Defense Department moves thousands of employees to Fort Belvoir, Va., about 20 miles south of Washington, and other locations that aren't accessible by Metro, said David Zaidain, an urban planner at the National Capital Planning Commission.
Most agencies use shuttles that seat between 20 and 25 passengers, and they typically run far under capacity, said Tony Simon, who operates shuttle buses for a half-dozen agencies as general manager of Reston Limousine of Dulles, Va.
"If it's only a third full, that's a good bus," Simon said.
Companies frequently share shuttle buses to reduce costs, Simon said. Two office buildings Simon's company serves in Southeast Washington pooled their resources to share a single bus instead of running two buses independently, saving them money, he said.
"They have less frequency, but they cut their costs down substantially," he said.
Federal agencies easily could work together to share shuttles, but they would have to sacrifice the convenience of having dedicated shuttles, he said.
Simon said he's not aware of any sharing between departments, although some sharing does occur between divisions within the same department. Simon runs shuttles taking U.S. Geological Survey employees from their headquarters in Reston to the Interior Department's headquarters in Washington and has separate shuttles operating for Interior's Bureau of Land Management. Interior allows any of its employees to ride the shuttles, regardless of which bureau they work for, he said.
The government has attempted to tackle this issue before, but without success. In 1985, an interagency working group issued a report recommending more coordination and consolidation of shuttle bus services. Five years later, however, the number of shuttle buses grew from 109 to 139, and the annual cost to run the shuttles had nearly tripled, to $16 million, according to testimony from a 2000 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on oversight, investigations and emergency management.
GSA calculated that 34 federal offices were operating 94 shuttle routes in 2000, 66 of which were operating in a 2.5-square-mile area around the National Mall in downtown Washington.
Marcus Peacock, who worked at OMB and the Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration, said he studied the issue while working on Capitol Hill in the late 1990s.
"What we found was, there wasn't a lot of good oversight of the shuttle services, so if you had shuttles that were largely empty, they would still run them," Peacock said.
Still, Peacock quickly realized that getting agencies to give up their individual shuttles would require a concerted effort governmentwide that would be impossible for one lone House committee to execute.
"To make it worthwhile, you have to look at all the agencies. But who's going to have the chutzpah to do that and be in a position to be able to do it? I guess GSA might be," he said.
The National Capital Planning Commission studied the issue as well during the previous decade and, in a 2004 comprehensive development plan for the nation's capital, recommended that agencies coordinate and consolidate shuttle bus routes where possible.
In addition, NCPC advocated the creation of the DC Circulator, a network of buses launched five years ago that operate on fixed routes within the city's central core, in part as a way to alleviate the need for individual agency shuttles. However, agencies felt that the Circulator routes could not replace shuttles that drop off employees in front of specific office buildings.
"They have real specific routes to their individual facilities," said Bill Dowd, director of the National Capital Planning Commission's physical planning division. "We weren't able to find any agencies that could completely eliminate their shuttle services between their agencies and rely on the Circulator to replace them."
Use of the shuttles varies widely, Dowd said. Some run every 15 minutes, while others run on the hour or only twice a day.
In 2005, Congress clarified the law to allow agencies to use shuttles to transport employees between offices and mass transit stations. Simon said some agencies still believe this practice is not allowed, although Peacock said the use of shuttles for transporting employees between the Metro and offices was widespread even before the law was changed.