Citing attacks directed at buses, Metro weighs service cuts in Anacostia

October 28, 2012

The steep, narrow streets around Robinson Place, often the scene of violent crime, have become treacherous territory for Metrobuses in Southeast Washington.

Police say teenagers are pelting buses with rocks, bricks and debris, causing injuries and damage and heightening anxiety among drivers and passengers.

Now, Metro wants to end night service in the trouble spots, all but giving in to the unidentified young people thought to be menacing the route.

Metro Transit Police say they have not been able to halt the attacks, with no arrests in at leasttwo years.

The chief spokeswoman for the D.C. police says the department does not assign officers or detectives to the bus cases because the attacks on Metrobuses are the transit agency’s responsibility.

Two bus routes in Anacostia have been targeted by youths throwing rocks and bricks. Metro wants to cut service after 8 p.m. in two areas off Stanton Road.

Caught in the middle are residents who live in the heart of the city’s poorest ward and who depend on bus service. If the proposed service cuts to the routes — the W6 and W8 — are approved, some riders would be forced to walk up to half a mile to the nearest bus stop.

Metro’s top bus official said he regrets having to take such a dramatic step, but said he has to consider the safety of the agency’s employees and passengers.

“From a safety standpoint it is worth taking the service away,” said Jack Requa, Metro’s bus chief.

When the objects hit the moving buses, they crack windshields and break side windows, and in the most serious cases, injure riders and bus operators.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who represents the area, said the police have not done enough.

“It’s gotten worse because nobody’s dealt with it,” Barry said. “There’s been this finger-pointing on the part of Metro police and D.C. police.”

With many people in Ward 8 needing public transit, reductions in bus service should not be made lightly, Barry said. Instead, the attacks on the buses — and similar vandalism of cars and other property — need to be more vigorously investigated than they have been up until now, he said.

“They have not tried everything,” Barry said. “Simple as that.”

Rock-throwing incidents targeting buses have been a citywide problem for years, but they occur far more frequently in Southeast, Metro officials said. The problem is acute along the W6 and W8 routes, which traverse Robinson Place and other streets with a history of violent crime. Metro says the W6 and W8 buses are targeted several times a week and some weeks every day.

Police they think the attackers are ages 12 to 19, said Jeff Delinski, deputy chief of the Tansit Police. They hide in the dark and are gone by the time police arrive, Delinski said.

“We put our officers out there to attempt to catch these people and it is a waiting game,” Delinski said.

Barry said the problem is puzzling.

“I don’t know what it is about young boys that they love to throw rocks,” Barry said. “It happens more in low-income communities, it happens more where [there are] people with transit dependency and also where there are a significant number of young people who are home after school and don’t have recreation facilities.”

The bus attacks have sent drivers and riders to the hospital, with the most common injuries resulting from flying glass, Delinski said. Metro officials would not provide records or statistics on the cases, though they say transit police detectives are assigned to investigate them.

Last month, a driver was hospitalized after a rock came through her open window and struck her on the left side of her head while she was driving on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, Metro said.

Vandalism of Metrobuses in September, including attacks with rocks and debris, resulted in the replacement or repair of 46 windshields and 61 pieces of side glass, according to Metro. The cost: $41,109.86.

“You can be ambushed down there,” said William H. Nowlin Jr., a Metrobus driver in Southeast who also serves as a union representative. “The people that ride the bus are just as afraid as we are, and we are the ones taking them home.”

On a recent Monday, a W8 bus was hit with a brick near Naylor and Good Hope roads.

“This is what happens,” said a Metro street supervisor inspecting the side glass of the bus. “We are lucky nobody was hurt.”

The brick missed the driver’s window, hitting the passenger area behind him. A plastic layer inside the bus remained intact and contained the glass.

The 30-foot-long buses departing from the Anacostia Metro station travel main streets such as Alabama Avenue and Stanton Road and smaller side streets such as Robinson Place and Elvans Road, both of which dead-end behind the Suitland Parkway.

Safety is a constant concern in the area as drivers pick up and drop off senior citizens, teenagers tote backpacks and young mothers carry toddlers. And it is not just rocks and bricks that bus drivers fear.

A W6 departing from the Anacostia Metro station just after 8 on a recent evening stopped suddenly, midway through the route. The engine and lights went off after a boy approached the bus and pulled an external switch that disconnects the battery. The bus was disabled and the boy disappeared.

“It’s crazy,” said the driver, who would not give her name. On the same night, she dealt with a passenger who refused to pay the fare and another who was intoxicated and forced his way onto the bus at the end of the route and exited only when the driver called security.

The two areas off Stanton Road where Metro is proposing to stop service after 8 p.m. are places where some residents are afraid to speak to police and where shootings and other violent crimes are common.

The bus stops that would be affected are at Jasper Road, Robinson Place, Bruce Place, and Elvans Road. Requa said the stops serve about 50 people a day, few of them at night.

“It is going to inconvenience some people,” said Deborah Womack, who rides the W6 every day and who said elderly people on nearby side streets would be most affected, some of them afraid to walk farther to catch the bus.

But Womack, who uses the bus to get to and from the Metrorail station, said she also feels for the bus drivers: “I wouldn’t want to drive a bus around here.”

Bus drivers, too, welcome the proposed changes, saying they would feel safer staying away from the hills and dead ends in the area. On Elvans Road,a man was shot and killed last month inside an apartment building.

Some residents and drivers say they would like to see police catch the vandals and deploy more resources to areas such as the ones served by the W6 and W8.

“If people were throwing rocks at buses in Georgetown, the police would be all over,” Womack said. “They need to have police officers on bikes and scooters like they have downtown. They won’t catch those kids if they are sitting in their patrol cars.”

D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump referred questions to Metro. “This is a WMATA matter,” she said, explaining that the department does not investigate the incidents.

But Robin Hoey, the newly appointed commander of the Seventh Police District, said he finds it hard to believe that the issue is not being addressed.

“The buses are traveling in D.C., and they are traveling in our neighborhoods, and the people up there do need that bus service,” Hoey said. “If someone is throwing rocks at anybody, that is illegal and we will address it.”

Law enforcement officials say they are visiting schools and communities to talk to young people about respecting Metro property and the safety of drivers and riders.

Delinski said transit police in uniform and in plainclothes ride the buses and patrol the routes. But of the transit police force’s 450 officers, two dozen are assigned to Metrobus, Metro said.

After years of unsuccessful efforts to curb the attacks, Delinski said he is glad Metro is taking steps to reduce opportunities for attacks at night.

“I think the best thing that we can do is alter the bus routes or move the bus stops themselves,” he said. “We come to the point where this is necessary.”

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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