Missing the Bus

Thursday, December 29, 2005

IT IS NOT startling news to bus riders who, weary from work or burdened with packages, wait curbside for a bus -- and wait, and wait -- that the Metrobus system is badly neglected, poorly managed and underfunded. Although it operates in one of the country's most dynamic and prosperous regions, Metrobus, the nation's fifth-largest bus network, is a second-rate system, running creaky old rigs that are too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, too leaky in the rain and too unreliable year-round.

As detailed in an eye-opening story by The Post's Lyndsey Layton, bus passengers here, nearly two-thirds of them female, tend to be poorer, blacker and less likely to own cars than the predominantly white, well-heeled and professional passengers who ride Metrorail. Lacking cars and access to rail transit, many passengers ride the bus because they have no choice. Lacking clout and powerful connections, they are too weak to make their complaints heard. Still, complain they do. According to a recent Metrobus survey, bus passengers registered more than twice as many complaints as their much more numerous rail-riding counterparts.

For years Metrobus was ignored as yesteryear's transit system while funds were lavished on its more glamorous rail sibling. Today the region lives with the result. As passengers well know, schedules on many routes are all but a fiction. When buses do arrive, they are often bunched in twos and threes, leaving luckless riders who arrive a minute later to wait much longer than they should. The outrage is compounded by Metrobus's nonchalance about the chronically spotty service. Owing supposedly to a lack of supervisors, the system does not even bother to monitor the on-time performance of its buses. That kind of complacency suggests contempt for the bus-riding public. It is a disgrace.

So is the bus network's level of technological sophistication. Elsewhere in the country, urban bus systems use automated passenger counters to hone service and schedules. But of the 1,460 buses in Metrobus's fleet, just 239 are equipped with such counters -- and those aren't even operational. Metro has not gotten around to buying the $2 million worth of software that would render them functional.

The original sin in all this is not only mismanagement and negligence -- though surely there is some of each -- but also lack of funding. Like Metrorail, Metrobus is hamstrung by the absence of a dedicated, dependable source of funding, and it must scrape by on what it can wheedle out of its constituent jurisdictions each year. To his credit, Richard A. White, Metro's embattled chief executive, has finally acknowledged the problems with bus service. But without adequate funding he will be hard-pressed to fix them anytime soon. Even after Metro buys 900 buses in the next five years, the average age of its fleet will be 7.4 years -- about 50 percent older than that of the nation's top-rated bus systems. Failing more aggressive action, Metrobus will remain the poor stepchild of regional transit, and riders will suffer.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company