The Metro board decided yesterday to seek help from the area's residents to find out what's wrong with the way the bus and subway systems work together.
The board action was the first official recognition that there may be problems in the Metro's grand design to eliminate virtually all parallel bus and subway service and thus reduce costs.
Fairfax County board member Joseph Alexander presented a detailed proposal to the board for study of the "bus-rail interface," as the realignment has been called.
"I'm not talking about changing the interface policy," Alexander said. But it is not working effectively in some areas. Once we get information back from citizens then we can decide what we need to do."
Since the subway's Blue Line from National Aiport to Stadium-Armory opened for passengers on July 1, more than 500 bus routes have been curtailed or rescheduled to change the bus system for a long-haul operation to a feeder for the subway.
Thousands of commuters have been forced to change their travel habits and to transfer from bus to train at outlaying stations in the eastern half of Washington, in Rosslyn and at the Pentagon.
At the same time, a complicated new fare system has gone into effect that has forced people to juggle change, transfers and magnetically encoded tickets called farecards to ride to work and back. In many cases, particularly for District of Columbia residents, the cost of riding to work by public transit has increased by as much as 30 or 40 cents a day.
All of this would have been fine except, as Alexander pointed out in his proposal to the board, for three problems:
The subway trains have been plauged with breakdowns.
The process of transferring from bus to train and back again has been exacerbated by balky fare gates and escalators and the "inability of fare gates to handle peak loads."
The bus schedules do not always fit the train shedules. The problem is particularly severe when the trains break down, making commuters late at the Pentagon, for example. When they get there, their bus has left.
Fairfax County, Alexander said, "has serious reservations about continuing to fund constantly increasing susbidies while at the same time service levels keep declining."
Rail ridership, according to figures released at weekly board meetings, has been climbing slowly upward in recent weeks and averaged 127,109 a day the last week in September. Wednesdays are the heaviest days, with Mondays and Fridays the lightest. That is a typical Washington transit pattern. However, ridership is still 15,000 to 30,000 a day below what Metro projected for the railroad.
No hard figures have been collected yet on bus ridership, but Alexander said that field checks in Fairfax County show bus ridership is down. Another subjective gauge is that there appear to be longer lines of cars backed up on the Potomac River bridges than there were a year ago during rush hours. Many people have written Metro and local newspapers saying, in effect, "We give up," sand threatening to start driving cars.
The Metro Board has tinkered with some obvious problems in the bus schedules, but yesterday appeared to adopt steps to take a formal look at the whole bus-rail system when it endorsed Alexander's proposal.
Local jurisdictions will figure out their own ways of contacting citizens in various transportation corridors to find out what is wrong under the Alexander plan. The schedule adjustments and other service changes could be made.
Metro general manager Theodore Lutz has already set up a team to study the problem. Further, Lutz has been working to resolve some of the operating difficulties with the trains and fare-collecting equipment.
"We're the first to recognize we've made some massive changes in the way the region does its business," Lutz said. "We may have botched some."
In other business yesterday, the board was relieved of the responsibility of having to decide whether to hire an outside management firm to operate the bus system.
ATE Management and Service Co. Inc., a Cincinnati firm that had been bargaining with Metro, withdrew its offer. Metro board members had twice delayed voting on the matter, which clearly was a headache to some of them. It also was clear from board discussions that ATE had lost its bid. Metro will continue to operate the buses with its own personnel.