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Riders Focus on Bus Service at Metro Town Meeting in Va.

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page B08

The room was nearly as crowded as an Orange Line train at rush hour as the leaders of the Metro transit system held a town hall meeting last night in Falls Church.

The audience of more than 100 at George Mason High School submitted questions about buses and trains, focusing on service in Northern Virginia. Bob Levey, a former Washington Post columnist who is now a vice president at Washington Hospital Center, served as host of the session.

Several dozen questions were submitted to Levey, who read them aloud to the Metro officials.

Riders wanted to know when a proposed rail line to Dulles International Airport would open, when new buses would come to South Arlington and why there was no location in Virginia to get Farecard refunds.

Catherine Hudgins, who represents Fairfax County on the Metro board, said the first part of the new rail line is scheduled for completion by 2011. The new buses should arrive in South Arlington in the fall, she said.

On the Farecard question, Metro officials said passengers can mail them in for refunds.

Although the session was within walking distance of the West Falls Church Metrorail station, a majority of the public's complaints focused on Metro's bus system.

Riders, some of whom had come from the District to attend, complained about buses that arrive too early or too late and drivers who are rude.

Mary Hall of Southeast Washington had a common complaint: Bus drivers talk on their cell phones while on the road.

"I have personally reported four bus drivers who were using a cell phone while driving the bus. One driver ran a stop sign," she said in her question. "What is Metro currently doing to address this issue?"

Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White responded that drivers are not allowed to talk on cell phones while driving and that the practice is a "serious disciplinary issue." He said he is willing to fire drivers for using the phones.

White was put on the spot by one questioner who wanted to know how much money he makes.

White was silent for a few moments, then said that his base salary is $259,000 and that he receives a $42,000 living allowance.

Others wanted to know about proposals to remove seats from rail cars to enhance capacity, an idea Metro plans to test. And Celia Patterson of Falls Church hit on an old complaint: "Eating on trains should be better policed."

The meeting was the second Metro has held and the first in Virginia, where 20 of the 86 rail stations are located. Metro officials said they would hold two more meetings this year, one in Maryland in September and one in the District in November, as part of their recently launched effort to reconnect with riders.

The first such meeting, in November at Metro's headquarters in downtown Washington, drew more than 200 people from across the region who challenged officials on policy issues and their familiarity with the system they run.

Levey said last night's hearing had a different atmosphere.

"This was far less confrontational," he said. "There were no catcalls from the audience."

After a problem-plagued year in 2004 that included a station fire and a train crash, Metro officials vowed a back-to-basics approach focusing on riders. Those plans include assigning a manager for each rail line, shaking up upper management and creating more direct avenues for riders to speak with top managers, such as regular online chats on Metro's Web site, www.metroopensdoors.com.

T. Dana Kauffman, Metro's board chairman, who also represents Fairfax, said the meeting was a "chance to hear from our customers. For any customer service organization, part of the basic approach to life is listening, observing and keeping in touch with the people we serve."

Last night's forum was preceded by an hour-long open house, where customers could see exhibits on how Metro works and talk to system officials.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company