Correction to This Article
A Dec. 27 graphic about improvements desired by bus riders published with an article on Metrobus service reported that 31 percent of riders surveyed desired more frequent stops. It should have said more frequent service.

Progress Has Passed Metrobus By

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By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

As shifting housing patterns, job growth and an influx of residents have transformed metropolitan Washington over the past three decades, Metrobus has done little to adapt, remaining essentially the same system since opening in 1973.

The nation's fifth-largest bus system still follows the basic contours of the D.C. streetcar lines of the 1950s.

Each day, 443,000 passengers -- many without options -- grapple with a transportation system of last resort. Buses are so unreliable, even Metro's chief executive has acknowledged that the schedules are fiction. Riders must transfer multiple times to reach their destinations. One bus line averages 84 passengers per trip, while another carries four.

A mismatch between demand and service has produced hidden rush hours, with standing room only on some buses at 11 on weeknights or 3 p.m. on weekends. Metrobus officials have not analyzed ridership on some weekday routes in three years. And it's been five years since they monitored passenger loads on weekend routes, Metro officials say.

The problems at Metrobus -- outdated operations, under-investment and an unresponsive bureaucracy -- come in addition to other troubles at the area's transit agency. Its board of directors took steps this month to remove Chief Executive Richard A. White, who has been criticized for failing to hold staff members accountable and taking too long to resolve problems.

For most of its history, the bus system has been overshadowed by the subway, which carries tourists and downtown professionals and draws the attention of Congress. Transit officials have repeatedly promised to put Metrobus on equal footing with Metrorail, but the buses have never been able to attract the same kind of money and institutional support. None of the 12 members of the Metro board of directors is a regular Metrobus rider; some can't remember the last time they rode one.

"Metrobus really is the poor stepchild," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the District on the Metro board.

Metro statistics show that compared with subway riders, bus passengers are more likely to be black women and people with lower incomes who are less likely to own a car.

Marianne Harding, 53, who commutes daily between Capitol Hill and 14th and U streets NW, believes the problems of Metrobus are linked to demographics. "It doesn't escape my notice that on many of the buses I ride, I'm the only white passenger," she said. "Buses serve lower-income neighborhoods. And it makes me think, Is there a connection?"

Metro officials say that they have made significant improvements, including the installation of SmarTrip fare boxes, and that the bus system will benefit from new technology and equipment coming into place in the next several years. "We're very, very serious about giving the buses a strong level of management attention, of moving forward to make this bus system a good system, an excellent system," White said.

Failing Grades

At White's request this year, a panel of bus managers from Houston, Toronto, New York and San Mateo, Calif., outlined a series of deficiencies with Metrobus, pointing to faulty operations and aging equipment in the 1,460-bus fleet.

"You need to invest in your bus service," panel leader Michael Scanlon told the Metro board. "You have a case of a rubber band stretched too far and about to snap in some cases."


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