A cry of protest from commuters has spurred District officials to rethink a controversial proposal that would end through Metrobus service along Connecticut Avenue as a means of forcing nearly 10,000 Maryland and District bus riders onto the subway.
City Council Member Polly Shackleton announced to a cheering crowd of about 250 commuters attending a hearing on the bus changes last week that at least one bus route -- the L5 to areas near the State Department -- will not be eliminated after all, at least for now. Hefty price increases and boarding restrictions may be imposed, however.
In addition, city, county and Metro officials have hinted that other changes may be made before the proposal, which would affect all nine L-route buses along Connecticut, is officially presented to Metro's regional board of directors Oct. 8. Any changes would go into effect in early January.
The elimination of night buses into Montgomery County along the Connecticut Avenue corridor, as proposed by county officials, also may be dropped from the plan, a Metrobus official said last week. Under the proposal the L5 and L6 buses to Wheaton and the L8 and L9 buses to Aspen Hill would stop running at 7:30 p.m. There are now five late L buses into the county, the last leaving 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW at 9:30 p.m.
The fragmentation of bus routes -- stopping buses at the new subway stations and forcing transfers to the subway or other buses -- is designed to funnel bus riders into the three new Connecticut Avenue subway stations that will open in the District in December: Woodley Park-Zoo, Cleveland Park and Van Ness-UDC.
The changes would save an estimated $468,000 a year in bus operating expenses by eliminating much of the bus service on Connecticut Avenue south of the new subway stations. Actual savings to the Metro system would be only $80,000 a year after additional subway operating expenses are deducted, according to Metrobus operations specialist Richard Dawson.
Even before last week's hearings, riders of the L5 buses won their case with city officials when they complained that commuters to the State and Interior departments and the area around the Kennedy Center would be hit especially hard if the L5 were eliminated. They argued they would need to take three buses or two buses and the subway, and also pay significantly higher fares, in order to get to work. Many county riders transfer to the L5 at Chevy Chase Circle, where it originates.
The latest proposal for the L5 route, which may be changed again before it goes to the Metro board, would make the L5 an express bus, charging riders a premium fare of $1.35 and imposing restrictions designed to limit its use only to riders going to areas not served by the subway system.
The L5's longterm future is still uncertain. District officials want to continue it only on an "experimental basis" until next summer, according to Anthony Rachal, city director of mass transportation.
While commuters at the hearing hailed the temporary reprieve for the L5, many others criticized the District's overall plan to truncate other bus runs along Connecticut Avenue. Many, including other city government officials, argued that it will be a great hardship on the thousands of elderly people who live along the avenue and may find transferring to the subway difficult or intimidating.
"We should not force the elderly to give up their familiar travel for the unfamiliar, inconvenient and frightening subway travel," said Joseph J. Senturia, speaking for the Brandywine (Apartments) Tenants Association at 4545 Connecticut Ave. NW.
"Keep the L4 or at least retain some bus service getting down below Dupont Circle where there are stores and medical offices," said Leo McCann, representing the Parker House Condominiums at 4700 Connecticut Ave. NW. "There are large numbers of elderly persons who use buses in the off-peak hours. Many need help getting on a bus and many won't ride the subway. My wife won't get on. I don't know what we can do. But we do need the L4" or some other regular bus service going all the way down Connecticut Avenue, McCann said.
Although commuters at the hearing were pleased to hear the L5 line would not be eliminated, they criticized the premium fare and boarding restrictions proposed for it.
"I don't think riders should be penalized for riding a bus with fares that are 100 percent higher than what they pay now and also would have boarding restrictions," said Alexis Obolensky, a State Department worker who commutes on the L5 from his home on 33rd Street NW.
The increase actually would be 134 percent, said Charles Lanman, who takes the L5 from his home near Nebraska and Connecticut avenues to his job at the U.S. Bureau of Mines. "I pay $11.50 now with a two-week flash pass and would have to pay $27 with a $1.35 fare each way."
"I'm upset to be told that there's now going to be a test period for the L5. We've got better things to do than fight for the L5 every two months," said Richard Levine, who commutes to Foggy Bottom from Connecticut and Porter. Last May the District held another bus hearing, at which it proposed to eliminate the L5 and all other direct rush-hour bus service between Northwest Washington and Montgomery County, and Foggy Bottom and the Federal Triangle. It dropped most of those route cutbacks after angry citizen protests.
Levine said a premium $1.35 bus fare, and even the $1.20 bus-subway fare, would make taxicabs seem reasonable. "I can get a cab downtown now from Connecticut and Porter for $2.25," he told the hearing.
Metro officials said after the meeting that the $1.35 fare mentioned was only a ballpark figure and that if a premium fare is charged, it might be as low as $1, the amount now charged on the two premium-fare routes in the city, the L1 and the P9.
For Montgomery County residents the proposed changes will mean transfers -- sometimes two or more -- and higher fares but in many cases faster commuting time into downtown Washington on the subway, said Metrobus operations specialist John Cowgill.
While L-bus fares will increase for county residents -- and Metro is now starting hearings for a general increase over and above that -- Cowgill said that most Aspen Hill and Wheaton residents would still pay less than Prince George's County residents for rides of similar length.
The Aspen Hill fare would rise to $1.75 each way, he said, for a combined bus-subway commute; Greenbelt area residents pay $2.05 to go an even shorter distance.