Mrs. G.B. Shaw, an Anacostia resident who buses to her housecleaning job in Glen Echo, a Maryland bedroom community, did not quite understand the proposals being discussed at the public hearing on Metro fare increases and route changes.
"The proposal," explained D.C. Transportation Director James E. Clark III, "is to maintain the quality of service but to reduce the quantity of service."
Shaw listened intently, but still did not quite understand. All she knew was that she depended on the bus to get to work. "Reduce it?" she asked incredulously. "But why?"
Clark struggled patiently for a further explanation. "The immediate concern," he said, "is wage prices are going up; diesel prices are going up; inflation is with us -- it's ruining all of us. The fact of the matter is the bills are coming in. The bills are higher than the budget."
The Metro officials' rationale for raising rates and cutting service all make good economic sense as a means of balancing the books. But to Anacostia residents such as Shaw and the others who attended last week's public hearing at Mary Church Terrell Elementary School in Southeast, the buses are the lifeline of their neighborhood. A dime fare increase can mean a considerable squeeze on low or fixed incomes, and a bus route change that looks simple on the maps can mean the difference between getting to work late, or not at all.
As Shaw put it, "The bus is my main source of travel for shopping, church -- whatever I do." She added, with a shrug of resignation, "Well, I guess there's nothing for us to do but take it if it comes."
As a budget-balancing move, Metro is considering several bus route changes across the city in addition to fare hikes of up to 10 cents in non-rush hours. The Metro board has been holding public hearings in the areas where the bus routes would have the most impact. In Anacostia, the board has proposed changing service in the A and V bus lines, as well as curtailing the "night-owl" services that run before dawn -- which many workers use in the early-morning hours.
While the bus route reductions are distributed equally throughout the city, Southeast residents tend to use public transportation more frequently than do residents of other areas because fewer people have thier own cars.
Anacostia residents eventually may have to accept rate hikes and service cuts, but at last week's public hearing they seemed determined not to take it all in stride. The meeting, the public's chance to air gripes about the system, began with the usual compaints about overcrowded buses, late buses and buses that never show up.
But as the meeting wore on into the night and the debate grew more heated, the Anacostia residents soon revealed a more visible current of resentment -- resentment that Southeast residents, who ride buses most, were being asked to bear the brunt of the service cuts, and resentment at the long delay in the promised opening of an Anacostia subway line.
Their remarks soon revived the age-old tensions between east of the river and downtown Washington, between city and suburbs, and, inevitably, between blacks and whites.
"How come Northwest and Connecticut Avenue get their new buses and subway systems and everything else?" asked Arthur Lloyd, a federal worker and a commissioner with the Sheraton Terrace area's Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Lloyd scanned the Metro board staff members seated at the head table, and said, "I see one black gentlemen. You need some more, because these folks don't understnd that folks just ain't got no money. They can't afford to pay."
Lloyd said during a recent trip to Aleandria he observed "about 10 buses came by, and there wasn't a soul on [any] bus. Our buses are fulll every day. What are we paying for? Are we paying for service for vacant buses in Virginia?"
Overcrowding on buses in Anacostia was the complaint voiced most often by the speakers. Said Mary Ross, another Ward 8 ANC commisioner, "After the frst three stops the bus is overcrowded. People are packed like sardines for the rest of the ride."
Then there was Louise Conway, a kitchen worker at D.C. Village, a home for the elderly. Conway said she must walk a quarter-mile, from 11th Street and Alabama SE to Martin Luther King Avenue, to catch the A4 bus to start her job at 5 a.m. She said another bus comes closer to her house, but it stops at the bottom of a hill, far from the entrance to D.C. Village. "I'm too old to be walking up that hill," she said.
The A4 line, the one Conway depends on to get her to work by 5 a.m., is one of those being considered for a service cutback. Conway asked, "How am I supposed to get to work? I have to take the us early in the morning, on holidays and every day of the week."
Calvin Rolark, publisher of the Washington Informer newspaper, told the hearing, "Anybody living across the Anacostia River ought to be allowed to ride free on that bus. We paid our dues. I urge your group to come up with some kind of equitable consideration for blacks east of the river.
"Individuals in Southeast Washington began paying for Metrorail from the first day," Rolak said. "Now we want our equitable rights."