Washington area’s winter storms have made for even tougher commutes for bus riders


A plow zooms by on a windy and snowy early morning along 18th Street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Rain, sleet or snow, D.C. resident Joel Ramos is expected to show up at the Glover Park restaurant where he works. This winter has been particularly tough. Severe weather like last Monday’s snowstorm turns his hour-long bus commute into a longer, less predictable and challenging ordeal.

Last month, when Snochi dropped 7 to 18 inches of snow in the region, Ramos was caught off guard. He found himself standing at a cold, icy bus stop near his Northeast Washington home for 30 minutes only to find out that bus service had been suspended. Ramos walked a few blocks to the Fort Totten Metro station to catch a Red Line train to Friendship Heights. From there, he thought, he would find a ride or walk the three miles to work in Glover Park.

It took him three hours to get to work, and he was two hours late.

“Most people didn’t have to report to work, but I had to work,” he said. “If we don’t work, we don’t get paid.”

This winter’s 25 storms have brought ice, snow, sleet and the dreaded wintry mix, disrupting school and work and creating travel nightmares for commuters. But perhaps no group has been more affected than those who rely on buses for transportation. Telecommuting typically is not an option for them. Many of these commuters, such as Ramos, work in jobs that do not pay them if they don’t show up. And many of them don’t have other transportation options.

“It has been a big problem. Bus schedules are unpredictable, they are late and sometimes there is no service,” said Mary Koua, a Langley Park resident who commutes to Silver Spring. “It is a problem for the people who need to get to work. We are too often left waiting at the bus stop, freezing in the snow, and late to work.”

In areas such as Langley Park, home to one of the region’s busiest bus-only transfer points, a day without service can be devastating. When Metrobus and the suburban bus systems suspended service last week, some lucky workers were able to find rides. Others said they were forced to take the day off and risk losing their jobs.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the transit agency understands the need for consistent bus service, particularly in areas without easy access to Metrorail. The agency, he said, does not take the decision to suspend service lightly.

“We understand there are people who rely on the service and need it,” he said. “On the other hand, navigating a bus in bad weather conditions is not safe.”

This winter, Metro has suspended all bus service at least twice. During some snowstorms, the system ran limited service on only the busiest routes. Bad weather also has caused countless delays and detours for bus riders.

Service disruptions also are costly to Metro, as they are to riders, officials said. Weekday bus ridership ranges from 420,000 to 480,000 riders; a day of no service is a loss of about $480,000 in fares, Stessel said. The agency has about 1,500 buses and 318 routes.

But transit officials say they prefer that over having buses stranded or involved in crashes during a snowstorm. In 2010, about 70 buses were stranded during Snowmageddon. “We tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to severe weather,” Stessel said.

Riders say they understand Metro’s decision to cancel service during treacherous weather conditions. But what’s more difficult to understand, some say, is the aftermath of such storms — dangerously icy sidewalks and snow-covered bus stops — which in some cases mean riders have to jump off a bus onto a pile of snow and ice.

Metro says it is responsible for clearing only the bus stops at its rail stations. There are 11,279 bus stops supported by 2,392 shelters owned by 15 agencies. The responsibility for clearing the stops is complicated and confusing, which often means no one does it.

“It’s not safe to be out. It is too dangerous,” said Jacqueline Orellana of Langley Park, as she waited for the C4 bus at a stop on University Boulevard near New Hampshire Avenue on Wednesday morning. A pile of snow hugged the edge of the sidewalk where a dozen people stood waiting. The bus was 15 minutes late, and when it arrived, there was no clear path to get to it.

Before suspending service, Metro officials consult with meteorologists and other area agencies to determine the condition of the roads, Stessel said. Metrobus supervisors also drive all of the bus corridors to see the conditions firsthand, he said. Last week, by Sunday afternoon it was clear that by the time bus service was to start at 4 a.m. Monday, there would be ice and rapidly deteriorating road conditions, Stessel said.

“The layer of ice that would be present was concerning. . . . It was clear that we would suspend service Monday morning,” Stessel said. Metro announced at 3:28 p.m. Sunday that Monday service would be canceled. “We wanted to get fair warning to riders that Metrobus service would not be there for hours so nobody would be standing at the bus stop for a bus that would not be coming.”

At 10:05 a.m. Monday, Metro announced that bus service would remain suspended for the rest of the day. “The decision in that is one that we weigh carefully,” Stessel said, and it was “based on forecasting conditions and what the roads were looking like.”

Other storms this winter, however, have been trickier for public transit agencies. For the Feb. 13 storm, for example, officials decided the night before to suspend late-night service. But Metro decided it would begin morning service on a limited “severe snow plan.” Very early that morning, as conditions changed, the agency suspended all service. Limited service was restored at 2 p.m., but Metro pulled back shortly before 8 p.m. because another wave of snow came through, along with freezing rain and frigid temperatures.

“Most folks got the message. Most people were taking the advice and staying home, not traveling,” Stessel said. “We weren’t hearing widespread reports of anybody waiting at the bus stop.”

Ramos did not get the message that February morning. He got up early to allow extra time for his daily trek: Take the E2 or E4 bus to Friendship Heights and then transfer to a Wisconsin Avenue bus that takes him to the restaurant at Wisconsin Avenue and Calvert Street NW, where he has been a cook for three years. He eventually made it to Friendship Heights by rail and got a co-worker to pick him up.

Last week, Ramos was better prepared. He had made arrangements with the restaurant Sunday evening for someone to pick him up Monday morning.

“I am lucky they offered us transportation,” he said.

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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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