Review Finds Metrobus in Decay

A Metrobus continues past a stop on Arlington Boulevard at South Glebe Road in Arlington. A panel reviewing Metrobus has suggested cutting stops.
A Metrobus continues past a stop on Arlington Boulevard at South Glebe Road in Arlington. A panel reviewing Metrobus has suggested cutting stops. (By Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

Metrobus, which carries 500,000 passengers a day across the region, is a dilapidated system that suffers from weak supervision, old equipment and buses that travel in bunches, wrecking schedules and service, a panel of bus experts told Metro directors yesterday.

"You need to invest in your bus service," said Michael Scanlon, who led the panel of managers from bus systems in Houston, California, Toronto and New York. Scanlon runs the San Mateo County Transit District in California. "You have a case of a rubber band stretched too far and about to snap in some cases."

Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White had asked the panel, organized by the American Public Transportation Association, to review Metrobus operations. Another association panel examined Metrorail earlier this year, also at White's request, and recommended ways to improve rail service.

The bus panel found room for improvement in the equipment, operations, driver training and maintenance of Metro's 1,460 bus fleet.

White agreed with the panel's findings and said that while Metrorail has gotten attention and dollars, the bus system has languished. "It has really taken a back seat," he said.

Part of the problem is that several suburbs that help pay for Metro service also operate their own bus systems, and their allegiance -- and financial support -- is divided, said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the District on the Metro board of directors. "We don't have a unified approach for bus, as we do for rail," he said.

The average age of a Metrobus is 9.9 years, twice what it should be, Scanlon said. "Many are over 15 years old," he said. "Anyone who owns an automobile knows that the older it is, the more maintenance you have to do, the less reliable it is."

Metro directors yesterday approved a $1.5 billion capital and operating budget, but a small portion will be spent on the bus system. Metro's capital plan calls for the purchase of nearly 900 new buses over the next five years, which will reduce the average age of a Metrobus to 7.5 years. But that still exceeds the level recommended by the panel.

Some mechanical breakdowns could be avoided if drivers properly inspected the buses before they begin their routes, as required by federal law, Scanlon said. "It will help you before you get a piece of equipment out on the road that then becomes a road call," he told Metro officials. "Your own audits and our observations show your operators are not doing it."

Metro managers said they have begun to require operators to perform the inspections and about 70 percent are complying.

The panel also found that bus service could run more smoothly with better supervision. Metrobus routes are plagued by "bunching," in which several buses on a route travel in a pack, Scanlon said. Bunching often occurs if traffic or some other problem causes the first bus to slow down and the following buses to catch up.

Bunching throws off the route's schedule and the distribution of passengers. Often, the first bus becomes crowded, while the last bus in the bunch carries few passengers. Supervisors posted on streets along a route can eliminate bunching by directing the second or third bus in a row to skip a stop and head to the next one.

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