They say the day of Rosa Parks riding on the back of the bus is over. But I don't know . . . The Metro people are pushing this train down our throats now."
Applause burst from the crowd of 75 to 100 blacks in the Brookland Union Baptist Church in Northeast Washington as the speaker, shoe store manager Don Lewis, jabbed the air with his hand.
"That's right, that's right," murmured voices in the crowd. ". . . It's just for the Maryland commuters . . . just for the suburbanites."
Not once was the word "white" or the word "black" mentioned during the sometimes heated two-hour meeting last week at which Metro staff employees attempted to explain the maze of bus route realignments, eliminations and curtailments that take effect this week in an effort designed to divert bus riders to Metro's expanded train service in Northeast Washington and Silver Spring.
But the meeting, like many before it, was thick with racial smoke. The code words were all ther - "Marylanders" . . . "commuters" . . . "inner city" - sometimes uttered with bitter emphasis. And the message was clear: Metro's train system is for white folks and the bus system for black.
The meeting, called last Thursday night by D.C. City Councilman William Spaulding (D-Ward 5), drew some residents who simply wanted to know how their particular bus line was to be affected. But many others saw the issue in broader political and social terms.
"I've stood on many a crowded Metrobus in my life," said Anthony Roberson, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, "and I can tell you that [with the new bus route alignments] the people are being more than inconvenienced. Their lives are being rearranged." Applause.
"Metro was buiilt for the suburbs. It was not built for the inner city," shouted a woman. More applause.
One after another, residents gave a litany of slower service, higher fares, more transfers, longer waits and other inconveniences they say they expect when the new schedules go into effect this week.
Richard J. Dawson, principal Metro staffer at the meeting, acknowledged that some inconvenience will occur in the process of diverting transit riders from buses to the still uncompleted rail system.
But such inconvenience will be minimal, he said. In many cases, service will be as good as or better than it is now. In other cases where residents believe bus service has been entirely eliminated, "they are simply misinformed or unaware of alternative routings," Dawson said.
Take the case of Don Lewis, the shoe store manager who invoked the name of Rosa Parks, the black woman who triggered the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., 22 years ago when she refused to give her seat on the bus to a white man.
Lewis lives at North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue and works at the Shoe World about three miles north at the Riggs Parking Shopping Center near Riggs Road and South Dakota Avenue NE.
Up to now, he has taken a single bus to work - the R-4 or R-6 - by going directly up North Capitol Street and then east on Riggs Road to the Shoe World. He says the trip takes 10 to 15 minutes. The cost: 50 cents in rush hour. Round trip, $1.
Under the Metro policy of eliminating bus service that parallels train service, Lewis now has two alternative but more round-about ways to get to work.
One would be to take the G-4 from North Capitol and Rhode Island to the Brookland train station; transfer to rail, pay an additional 40-cent fare, go one stop to the Fort Totten tation, get off and either walk the remaining half mile to work or transfer to an E-4 or R-8 bus to Riggs Road. The cost: 90 cents in rush hour. Round trip, $1.80 if bus transfer are used at both ends of the train ride.
The other way would be to take an 80 or 81 bus that goes up North Capitol, then winds around the Catholic University and eventually terminates at Fort Totten station where Lewis can transfer to an E-4 or R-8 to Riggs Road. The cost: 50 cents in rush hour.
"No matter which way I do it," Lewis said. "it's going to cost more and take me three times as long to get there as it used to."
Dawson doesn't dispute the additional cost if Lewis goes by train, but he contends the bus-train trip will take about the same time as the tradditional R-6 bus-only trip up North Capitol. The alternative bus-only trip - route 80 or 81 - would take "five to 10 minutes longer" Dawson estimated.
Last summer when Metro's Blue Line train service opened from National Airport to RFK Stadium, scores of bus lines were realigned or curtailed, triggering widespread protests by city residents, especially in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in Far Southeast.
Their protests are now being joined by residents in Northeast Washington as well as some close-in arcas of suburban Prince George's County with the additional bus route changes going into effect this week.
One of the most dramatic changes affecting hundreds of bus riders is elimination of the 89 bus - a rush hour express bus from Mount Rainier that went straight down Rhode Island Avenue to downtown and terminated at 19th Street and Virginia Avenue NW.
Those riders must now switch from that single-bus trip to either a bus-train combination or a series of transfers on as many as four buses.
Elimination of the 89 bus generated a petition signed by more than 100 riders - both black and white - requesting restoration of the line. The petition went to the transportation departments of the District and Prince George's County and to Rep. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) and D.C. City Councilman Marion Barry (D-At Large).
Some cross-town bus rides are also subject to additional transfers, even though they do not tie directly into train service.
Berkeley L. White, for example, who lives at 617 Hamlin St. NE and works the midnight shift at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, has customarily taken the T-5 bus across Northeast Washington and Rock Creek Park to Friendship Heights and then out Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road to the hospital.
That single-bus trip will now be divided into two trips, White will take essentially the same route from Northeast Washington to Friendship Heights at Maryland-District line on Wisconsin Avenue but then transfer to a second bus for the Maryland portion of the trip.
Tony Rachal of the D.C. Transportation Department acknowledges that such "turnarounds" at the Maryland District line create more transfers and waiting time for passengers. But by the same token, he said, breaking up long, cross-town bus trips into shorter segments can increase efficiency.
"On some of these long, over-extended bus routes, the drivers can't keep up their schedules," Rachal said. "Schedules are easier to meet on short runs."
Metro has adopted the policy of diverting bus riders to trains wherever possible, Rachal said, because "it is cheaper per passenger mile to transport people by train than by bus."
While this concept may appear obvious to the planners and technicians in Metro and Transportation Department, it is not so clear to the average rider who will pay more, often for less efficient service, starting this week, says D.C. council member Wilhelmina Rolark who represents Ward 8 in Far Southeast.
"We are transit dependent people in Ward 8," she said. "A higher percentage of our people do not have cars and must ride public transportation . . . We don't have the luxury of driving a car if we don't like the bus system."
City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, who until recently was a member of the Metro board of directors, said some bus service was "cut out too quickly" when the Blue Line train service was opened last summer.
In some cases after rider protests were lodged, limited bus service was restored, "and we may have to do that again" with the current set of curtailments.
Tucker also echoed the sentiment expressed at the Brookland Union Baptist Church meeting last Thursday that the train system appears to function primarily to the advantage of white commuters from the suburbs. But he said it is temporary.
"We are in an interim situation with an uncompleted system," he said. "The current situation is likely to work in favor of suburbanities . . . That's why it's important to keep a lot of buses running in the city."