A Metrobus driver set a bit of a record Wednesday when five buses broke down on him. That means five loads of passengers had to stand in the record 103-degree heat and wait for the next bus.
That's true," said Leroy Bailey, Metro's assistant director of bus services. "Wednesday was an unusual day."
Metro board members were less philosophical. At a board committee meeting yesterday, Fairfax County member Joseph Alexander told Metro General Manager Richard S. Page, "We want something done."
"So do we," Page responded.
"We don't see anything happening," Alexander said. He is tired, he said, of reports and briefings about the bus problems.
Yesterday, just to cite one problem that politicians such as Alexander hear about, 409 of Metro's 1,810 buses had inoperable air conditioning. That's more than one bus in five.
While the heat has created special problems for Metro this week, the more serious question is one of how well Metro maintains and cleans its bus fleet.
Metro officials interviewed after Alexander's comments yesterday conceded that there have been unusual maintenance problems, particularly at two big District of Columbia garages. Those problems have been visible to riders in the form of dirty buses, buses that do not always run on time and, most obvious in weather like this, buses that do not have air conditioning.
On Wednesday, the day of the record heat, Metro had what may be a record number of breakdowns. According to Bailey, 297 buses had to be abandoned on the street at some point during the day and an additional 200 were turned in to garages for various mechanical difficulties.
Many of those buses that broke down -- including three of the five driven by the one driver -- suffered overheating engines. When the "hot engine" light comes on, drivers are instructed to stop running to prevent further damage to the engine.
Alexander charged during his exchange with Page that more bus problems are coming from the Bladensburg garage in Northeast Washington than from any other, and Page did not disagree. Almost one-fifth of Metro's fleet is garaged at Bladensburg, the largest of eight garages in the Metro system. Exacerbating the problem, Page said, has been a 15-month construction program there to add new service bays and pave bus ramps and parking areas.
The air-conditioning problem seems to be concentrated in two garages, Bailey said, the Bladensburg and the Northern, on upper 16th Street NW. Of the 409 buses without air conditioning yesterday, 267, or two-thirds, were from those two garages.
Making it worse for riders is the fact that the two newest bus models have windows that do not open so riders cannot solve the air-conditioning problem for themselves.
In other matters yesterday, Metro committees:
Agreed that taxicabs could use so-called kiss 'n' ride spaces at Metro stations to puck up and discharge passengers. If special additional provisions are needed at certain stations, they may be worked out between Metro and the local government affected.
Were told that an arbitrator has ordered elections to determine whether white-collar workers, at Metro wish to be unionized, and to determine which of two competing unions would represent them. Fewer than 500 employes are affected. Most Metro employes are transit workers and are covered under union contracts.