Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ridership up for Bethesda trolley

Free transportation route could be expanded eastward

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Ridership numbers are up and a new route is planned for the Bethesda Circulator, officials say.

And as more residents try to find alternate modes of transportation in lieu of driving, officials hope the free trolley that loops through the Bethesda business district could help fill that void.

‘‘We want people to realize there is an alternative way to get from one end of town to the other,” said Stephanie Coppula, director of marketing and communications for the Bethesda Urban Partnership, a nonprofit entrusted with the marketing and upkeep of downtown Bethesda.

The Circulator offers trolley service throughout the downtown neighborhoods west of Wisconsin Avenue, stopping along streets as far south as Bethesda Avenue and as far north as Rugby Avenue.

The service began in 1999 as the Bethesda 8 Trolley, a free service funded by the county and state, originally used mainly as a commuter service for Metro riders.

Operated by the county’s Ride On bus service until September 2006 and now managed by the Bethesda Urban Partnership, the free trolleys now offer Bethesda visitors not only a trip to work or a restaurant, but a trip back in time.

‘‘We love it,” said Maria Garcia-Rodriguez, with her son Ramon, 2, of Kensington. ‘‘He likes it because he thinks he’s getting on an old train. Sometimes we just ride it for fun.”

When BUP took over the trolley nearly two years ago, many in the community didn’t know about the service, or were confused about the route, Coppula said.

In November 2006 new trolleys replaced aging ones and the group made a concerted effort to market the service, printing 40,000 pamphlets about it and its route and taking out advertisements in newspapers championing the Circulator.

The efforts have paid off, according to the numbers.

Monthly ridership in September 2006 was 17,892. In September 2007, ridership was up to 24,144, an increase of 35 percent. Coppula said ridership numbers are steady now at about 22,000 to 23,000 riders per month.

The Circulator costs $672,000 annually to run and is funded by the nearly $18 million in profits from the Bethesda Parking Lot District, according to Kenneth Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center.

Two trolleys run concurrently throughout the day, hitting all 18 stops on the loop every 10 minutes. A third trolley is available to BUP, but only two run at any time.

Hartman said he recently proposed to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) the addition of a new stretch of the Circulator route that would cross Wisconsin Avenue to pick up passengers along Montgomery Lane and East West Highway.

‘‘This is essential,” he said. ‘‘It’s win-win because it will help draw people from East Bethesda who otherwise might not walk to Woodmont [Triangle], or would drive.”

Hartman said one of the stops would be at Waverly House, a county-run senior living center on East West Highway.

Coppula said there is no timetable set up for when the new route may be approved by the county, but BUP is hoping to have it up and running by this fall. The cost of the expansion has not yet been determined.

She added that BUP will install new, larger signs for the circulator as well, making the stops more visible to the public.

The Circulator is used not only by families for a nostalgic ride, but also by businessmen and women getting to work, Coppula said.

Peter Vandevelde, of Washington D.C., works in the Woodmont Triangle neighborhood of Bethesda and has used the Circulator for the past year.

‘‘It’s really good on hot days and cold days,” he said, ‘‘because those days I really don’t feel like walking.”