In a move that other Washington area jurisdictions are watching carefully. Montgomery County's own bus system will take over nine Metrobus routes using county-owned equipment, drivers and mechanics.
The county service, called "Ride-On", is just a little over 3 years old and is carrying 20,000 riders a week on four routes it already has in the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area. What makes Ride-On interesting for other jurisdictions is that the county is operating its system for less money than similar Metrobus service would cost.
The primary reason Ride-On coast less to operate is that its drivers are county employees who are paid about $4,000 a year less than unionized metro-bus drivers. Drivers' wages generally comprise about three-fourths of the cost of operating a transit system in the U.S.
Montgomery Country officials from Executive James P. Gleason on down say they are not interested in operating a competitive service with Metro, only a complementary one oriented to neighborhoods.
The Metro staff opposed the takeover of three of the nine routes transferred from Metrobus to Ride-On, and some staff members see the county service as the first step in a long process that could result in the dismantling of the regional bus system, especially as the subway makes it way to the suburbs.
Two of the routes Montgomery County is assuming have relatively long runs on Georgia Avenue and New Hampshire Avenue - both prime spokes in the regional wheel and both generators of high ridership. Understandably, Metro does not want to lose profitable routes.
"Even though they run on those streets, the last thing we want is long-haul Metro routes," said Edward A. Daniel of the county transportation department. "Those routes are essentially neighborhood in character, Metrobus keeps its runs into the District of columbia."
The Metro board yesterday approved the last of the Ride-On route takeovers after delaying for two weeks because of staff opposition.Although the board vote was unanimous, it was not altogether enthusiastic.
"I don't want to discourage better transit," D.C. Transportation Director Douglas Schneider said, "but I think we have to be concerned about distorting the regional system." Schneider voted for the change.
There was actually little choice, Montgomery County subsidizes Metro, as do other area jurisdictions, and has the right to reduce, expand or climinate Metrobus service. The county had already decided to remove its subsidization from the nine Metrobus routes and to expand the Ride-On service.
Ride-On's four present routes extend outward from downtown Silver Spring. Buses run every 20 minutes, 12 hours a day, Monday through Saturday. The bus stops contain maps of the routes and the times the buses are supposed to arrive.
In November with the opening of the Silver Spring and Takoma Park Metro subway stations. Ride-On will expand its service to 20 routes. They will include the existing four routes and the nine Metrobus routes. All of the routes will serve the Metro stations from down-county neighborhoods.
"We use smaller buses and can penterate streets where residents will never permit a big Metrobus," said Daniel.
"We started Ride-On as an experimental program to see if we could improve or extend transit services to more people, and we found that we were getting about 50 per cent more riders than we projected," he said.
The routes are concentrated in an area where high-rises, garden apartments, and single-family homes present the kind of high-density pattern that mass transit serves best.
The Ride-On service costs 25 cents. Despite its success, it is not making money. In the fiscal year just ended, expenses were $850,000 and revenues were $240,000 - a deficit of $610,000.
County officials estimate that, when all 20 routes are operating, the annual costs will be $3 million and revenues will be $875,000. Still, they figure they are providing bus service for about 75 cents per passenger, while it costs Metro about 95 cents, according to Metro figures.
Bus maintenance and personnel and administration have been handled by existing county offices. The county has so far avoided using federal or state funds for the project. That means that federal strings - including those requiring labor agreements - have been avoided.
That is a point of potential conflict. The county has 37 full-time drivers and will expand that total to 116.It can hire part-time drivers, something Metro is prevented by union contract from doing.
"You bet I'm going to try and organize those drivers and mechanics," said George Davis, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents Metrobus drivers and mechanics.
Other jurisdictions - especially Arlington and Alexandria - have looked from time to time at providing their own local bus service, at least partly to get around the cost of unionized drivers that they presently subsidize in their payments to Metro.
One of the riders on a Montgomery County bus Wednesday was a Metrobus driver who lived in Takoma Park. Ride-On carried him from his home to downtown Silver Spring, where he picked up his Metrobus for a trip into the District. He said he was well aware of the potential union problem.
"Don't put my name in the paper," he said. "But this (Ride-On) is a great service. If you're going to serve the public, it seems to me it's OK."