Metro Pushes Big Bus Service Improvements

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Metro officials proposed a major overhaul of the region's bus system yesterday, scrapping service on routes with few riders, reducing crowding on heavily traveled routes and skipping some stops to speed trips along certain congested corridors.

Under the proposals, 11 routes would be cut, and late-night service on 28 Friday and Saturday routes would be eliminated. But service would be enhanced along many other lines, such as Georgia and Pennsylvania avenues, each of which carries an average of 19,000 daily riders.

The board's budget committee agreed to hold public hearings within the next few months on the proposed changes, which also include a measure to provide weekday service on four major holidays.

The proposals are the first the agency has made to try to address Metrobus problems by shifting resources from poorly performing routes to routes that need more service. Historically, transit officials have shied away from cutting bus routes, seeing it as politically difficult.

The bus system transports 443,000 passengers a day. Metro officials have been under increasing pressure from bus riders, who have long complained about an outdated system with unreliable schedules and inefficient routes.

Metrobus, which has been described by a board member as the "poor stepchild," is often overshadowed by the subway, which carries tourists and downtown professionals. Last summer, a panel of outside bus experts told Metro that the dilapidated system has weak supervision, old equipment and buses that travel in bunches, creating havoc with schedules and service

Cutting the unproductive bus routes, which average fewer than five passengers per trip, would generate $2.4 million, which would then be used to reduce crowding and improve reliability on 18 routes in the District, Maryland and Virginia, officials said.

But Metro also wants to spend $2 million on additional relief for crowded buses to cut down on bus "bunching," when buses travel in groups, on other routes; $3.6 million to improve service along major corridors by breaking up long, unreliable routes and creating skip-stop service; and $4 million to extend use of six-car trains during non-rush hours and weekends and to use weekday bus and rail service instead of the holiday schedule on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents' Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day. Holiday Metrorail ridership has jumped 19 percent over the past five years.

None of those funds are included in the proposed budget for fiscal 2007, which begins in July.

Nevertheless, budget committee Chairman Jim Graham, who represents the District on the Metro board, said he is confident that funds could be found if the 12 board members -- none of whom is a regular Metrobus rider -- showed genuine commitment.

"I've watched rabbits get pulled from hats when there is determination to do something," he said, referring to the budget process. Board Chairman Gladys Mack has pledged to make 2006 "the Year of the Metrobus," but that pledge will ring hollow, Graham said, "unless we have the bucks to back that up."

Board members criticized the decision Wednesday by a Virginia legislative subcommittee to turn down a funding bill that would have helped ensure financial stability for the transit system. Two of the delegates who voted against the bill are from Prince William County -- Republicans L. Scott Lingamfelter and Harry J. Parrish.

T. Dana Kauffman, who represents Fairfax County on the Metro board, accused the delegates of "biting the hand that subsidizes their constituents every day." Large numbers of Prince William County residents, he said, travel by bus from their homes to the Franconia-Springfield and Vienna Metrorail stations for their commute to work.

These Prince William County riders "are filling the trains before they get too far down the line," said Kauffman, who asked staff to provide him with an estimate of the number of Prince William riders.

The delegates voted against the bill, which would have allowed the Northern Virginia jurisdictions served by Metro to raise $50 million a year for the transit system through a quarter-cent sales tax increase.

Metro is the only major public transit system without a guaranteed stream of government revenue from the region it serves. The Maryland General Assembly and the D.C. Council are considering finance proposals.

Also yesterday, Metro officials said they would begin a pilot program to give cell phones to drivers in the curb-to-curb MetroAccess service for disabled riders. When Metro switched providers for MetroAccess, the contract was changed, and drivers are no longer allowed to contact riders directly. All communication is handled by a central dispatcher, each of whom is responsible for about 20 drivers.

But that has caused numerous breakdowns in communication, according to riders who have been stranded or picked up hours late because drivers could not find them and could not talk directly with them.

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