Metro to Suspend System Providing Bus Arrival Times
Before Expansion, Months of Repairs

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

Metro will be hitting the pause button this fall on its popular system that tells riders when the next bus is coming because of a software problem that is giving incorrect data to customers, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said yesterday.

The NextBus system, available on 32 routes, could be out of service for up to 18 months to complete repairs before it can be expanded to all of the system's 338 routes, agency managers said yesterday.

In a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters, Catoe also said that next week he will propose to board members smaller fare increases than first suggested to help close a projected shortfall for next year. He said he did not have specific numbers.

Budget analysts are adjusting revenue and expense forecasts after reaction from board members and riders to Metro's proposal last week to raise minimum rush-hour subway fares by 45 cents and bus rides by a quarter, the largest increases in the agency's history.

The NextBus system is designed to tell riders when the next buses will be arriving at a stop or departing from a station. Customers call a telephone number, provide their NextBus stop number and get information on their cellphone or hand-held wireless device telling them how long it will be before their ride arrives.

The system uses global positioning satellites and computer modeling to track buses on their routes every 90 seconds.

Metro began testing the service in November in Maryland, Virginia and the District and expanded it this spring, including to routes with some of the system's heaviest ridership.

But yesterday, Catoe said the data given to riders are not accurate enough. The main problem is outdated software that cannot communicate properly with newer software, he said. Metro plans to disconnect the system, make the upgrades and reconnect the system, he said.

Metro's chief technology officer, Suzanne Peck, said the system is accurate about 80 percent of the time and probably will be taken out of service at the end of next month.

For the riders on the 32 pilot routes, that degree of accuracy means the information is not reliable one or two days a month, she said.

"For people riding on those 32 routes, they might be willing to put up with that level of accuracy," she said. But putting the system into use for the entire bus network would pose greater problems for riders, she said.

Metro will be reaching out to customers on the pilot routes and meeting with transportation officials in the three jurisdictions to let them know about the nature of the problem and how Metro plans to make the repairs, she said. The work will be done by Metro personnel.

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