Area governments, convinced that Metrobus is too expensive and unresponsive to neighborhood needs, are finding it increasingly attractive to operate or franchise many bus routes on their own.
Montgomery County's blue and white Ride-On buses already serve much of the county. D.C. has red-trimmed Metro-Minis on four short routes. Fairfax County and Alexandria have hired consultants to study independent bus networks there, while Prince George's is seeking a private operator for selected routes.
For the riders, it could mean lower fares and the chance to board frequent, small buses on residential streets rather than walking to Metrobus stops on main roads. For taxpayers, it could mean subsidy payments lower than those Metro would need, but also the major financial risk of buying and managing costly vehicles.
"We are not competing with Metro. We complement it," says Montgomery County official Jenny Leary about Ride-On, which has grown to 26 routes in the Silver Spring and Gaithersburg areas, most of them routes Metrobus never served.
But in some cases Ride-On's gain has been Metro's loss. County buses replaced Metro on about seven routes that county officials felt were being run inefficiently. Now Fairfax, Alexandria and Prince George's are talking of displacing Metro from some routes, too. "The Metrobus subsidy is just going out of sight," says Prince George's Transit Director Michael Errico.
Metro General Manager Richard Page acknowledged that Metro's bus service, dating to its absorption in 1973 of D.C. Transit and three suburban companies, has been troubled. "Nobody prior to the fall of 1973 thought that we'd be operating a bus system, much less four old, run-down, lousy bus systems," he said.
Metro does not oppose decentralization, Page said. In some cases, the local control of buses may be more efficient. But he cautioned the jurisdictions to consider the effect their actions may have on the millions of dollars Metro has spent on new buses and garages and thousands of employes it has hired on the assumption that it would remain paramount.
If the trend continues, Page said, the area's transit system might be very different several years from now. Metro would operate trains and longer-haul buses along trunk routes, fed by large fleets of locally commissioned buses and minibuses charging a wide range of fares.
Squeezed between a phase-out of federal operating aid and rising costs, the eight local jurisdictions in Metro have watched their subsidy and debt-service bills for rail and bus rise from $113 million in fiscal 1981 to an expected $185 million for fiscal 1983.
Many local legislators blame this rise largely on unions and rules that come with the federal aid Metro gets. By their account, it is federal rules that lock Metro into excessive wage rates--a bus driver's top base salary is now $24,118 a year--and quarterly cost-of-living raises. Union officials respond that workers have a right to protection against inflation.
County officials also complain that outdated work rules block productivity at Metro, forcing overstaffing and inadequate use of part-time labor. "In essence you have to design the service around the labor contract," says Fairfax Transportation Director Shiva Pant.
Page, however, argues that benefits of federal aid outweigh the obligations it brings. And other transit officials note that potential cost advantages might be illusory if suburban employes eventually unionize and raise labor costs to Metro's levels.
Still, the jurisdictions increasingly are thinking of operations such as Montgomery County's Ride-On. Created in 1975, it now runs 74 buses at peak hours in and around Silver Spring, most of them ferrying people to and from the Metrorail station there, and 16 peak-hour buses in Gaithersburg--all without unions or federal aid. Montgomery County paid up to $82,000 each for the buses. Despite that capital cost, officials said, county taxpayers are still ahead of where they would be if Metrobuses plied the same routes. That is because Ride-On's operating costs are well below Metro's.
Ride-On drivers have no union. Wages start at $14,500 a year and generally are capped at $19,000. Ride-On keeps other costs low by using other county agencies for legal counsel, maintenance, computer time and other services. Ride-On has no expensive wheelchair lifts or special staff to process federal paperwork.
Ride-On is not encumbered by union work rules, county officials said. It can make heavier use of part-time drivers (this allows it to put extra buses on the street at rush hour without taking on expensive full-time employes) and can assign its drivers to other tasks if they aren't driving.
The upshot is that the cost of carrying one Ride-On passenger is about $1.20. On Metrobus it is $1.42.
County transit official Ed Daniel said Ride-On is not likely to take over more Metrobus routes but will probably continue to expand service into areas no one serves at present. The county plans to buy 50 more buses for feeder service once the Red Line subway opens through Bethesda and Rockville.
D.C., meanwhile, recently inaugurated four short-haul Metro-Mini routes, one in each city quadrant. But unlike Montgomery, it has opted not to buy its own buses. The Metro-Minis are owned by Metro but operated on contract to the city government, which will pay subsidies of something over $1 million a year for them.
Ridership on two of the four routes has been disappointing to date, a city official said. Still, D.C. is hoping to expand Metro-Mini service to 12 routes in coming years.
Fairfax County, one of Metro's biggest critics on cost, commissioned a $58,000 study last year on creating a feeder bus network in communities south of the Beltway and east of Shirley Highway. Service would be oriented toward the Huntington rail station, expected to open in the summer of 1983 or later.
The county might keep Metrobus only on arteries like Rte. 1, while using local buses to enter quiet neighborhoods and move people to the rail station, according to tranportation director Pant. The buses might be owned and operated by the county or by a franchised private company.
County planners are thinking in terms of 25 buses, smaller and less expensive than Metro's 40-footers, according to Pant. "They're not perceived as intruding into communities," he said. There are no plans to seek federal aid because "certain strings are attached to federal money that would reduce our flexibility in operating the system . . . ," he said.
Alexandria has commissioned a $68,000 study to look at ways to feed future rail stations there and improve service on residential streets and in the commercial center. Deputy City Manager Clifford Rusch said the consultant was told to find savings of at least $200,000 from the $6 million that Alexandria's bus and rail service now costs.
Running buses is an expensive and not always successful venture, as the town of Vienna learned recently. Two experimental "Jitneybuses" running up and down Rte. 123 stopped service in March because of poor ridership. Cost studies demanded at least 10 riders per trip; they got six and ran up much larger subsidy bills than expected.
Other area cases of local bus service or interest in it:
Since 1978, Fairfax City has subsidized rush-hour commuter buses run by a private firm. It spends $175,000 a year on the buses, which take about 500 people to jobs in the Pentagon and downtown areas.
Two years ago, Arlington County public works officials suggested a study on creating a county-run bus system. But the County Board rejected it on the grounds that such a system would be practical only in conjunction with another Northern Virginia local government, a county official said.
Prince George's County sought bids last year from private firms to operate commuter service between downtown D.C. and Oxon Hill, as well as local service in Oxon Hill. The county termed inadequate the one serious proposal it received, but remains interested. At present, it is analyzing another firm's proposal to run commuter service between Laurel and downtown D.C.