The Nov. 26 editions of The Washington Post incorrectly reported that O. Roy Chalk, chairman of D.C. Transit System Inc., said that his system was driven into bankruptcy. In fact, D.C. Transit, the company that formerly operated Washington's bus system, never went bankrupt and Chalk never described it in those terms.Chalk says that D.C. Transit continues to be a viable, operating company.
O. Roy Chalk wants another crack at the bus business here.
The controversial chairman of D.C. Transit, the private company that ran Washington's buses until 1973, is promoting a proposal to junk the troubled Metrobus system and replace it with 25 small competing companies.
D.C. Transit, now a real estate holding company, would be willing to manage the new system, Chalk says. Its fee might be a percentage of profits that Chalk asserts will appear once the waste that he blames for Metrobus' huge operating deficits -- $120 million this year -- is wiped away.
With his characteristic confidence, the 75-year-old Chalk is proposing to return profit and private enterprise to public transit. Bus service will improve immeasurably, Chalk argues, if controlled by the laws of supply and demand. "It's a question of the survival of the fittest," he says.
Chalks's plan is largely dismissed as a pipe dream by area transit officials. Private bus operators had their chances in cities all over the country and went bankrupt one by one, officials say, and there is no reason why it wouldn't happen again.
"We in the District have had enough of Mr. Chalk," said D.C. City Council member Jerry A. Moore Jr., chairman of the Metro board. " . . . May the Good Lord help him in any other ventures he may be in, but we don't want him back here."
Still, Chalk's appraisal of what ails Metrobus appears to contain a fair measure of truth. "When you give bad service and you raise the fare," he says, "the public resents ever cent of it." In recent years, as ridership has dwindled, Metro has found out the hard way how true that is.
Metro's buses are filthy, Chalk says. When he ran the bus system, "I would take note of the buses that were dirty and turn their numbers in. And they wouldn't be dirty the next day," says Chalk. Metro has tried for years, with mixed success, to clean things up.
Metro is an enormous bureaucracy staffed by unmotivated people, Chalk says. "There are at least 2,000 men at top levels who don't have to be there." Metro acknowledges that overhead is high and has tried, again with uneven results, to lower absenteeism and raise productivity.
So Chalk's recent appearances before local transit commissions is something of a personal victory over the public transit agency that ran him out of the business nine years ago for the twin sins of bad service and high fares -- a state of affairs that Metro promised to correct.
Transit officials acknowledge that Metrobus might do well with a dose of private sector creativity, but old suspicions of Chalk remain. Many feel he abused the franchise when he had it and let his bus fleet and garages fall apart before selling them to Metro at enormous personal profit.
For his part, Chalk maintains that his system was driven into bankruptcy by politics, overregulation and artificially low fares. But that is behind him, and he looks to the future with his new proposal.
The less-than-enthusiastic reception has not put off Chalk, a tireless, immigrant-turned-tycoon who made fortunes in transit, real estate and aviation, loves flashy clothes and was once the target of countless hostile editorials, public protest and politicians' speeches.
Never wary of calling on people in high places, he began his campaign earlier this year by writing to President Reagan, David Stockman and the governors of Maryland and Virginia. Their offices sent letters down through the chains of command, which eventually generated entree to local transit agencies.
Dump Metrobus, he recently told the Washington Suburban Transit Commission, which sets policy for the Maryland suburbs. Sell off its buses as junk, give the money back to the government and be done with it, he urged.
To rebuild, look to the early days of transit, when independent privately owned streetcar and bus companies vied with each other for riders. Reorganize Metro's drivers and mechanics into some 25 private firms. But give the drivers and mechanics an added incentive, he said: Make each a co-owner of his company. (This is "not communistic," he pointed out.)
Buy 1,500 brand new buses, (the approximate number of buses now on the street at rush hour) with an employe/owner putting up about $7,500 each for a down payment. They could get their money back in full through tax breaks for investors and depreciation, Chalk says.
Assign each company a sector of the Washington area and, with D.C. Transit in command, step back to watch private enterprise work miracles.
Buses would run on time, Chalk promises. They would be clean. Drivers would be polite and mechanics would keep things in top running form because each employe would lose money personally if riders abandoned them. Everyone would be less prone to call in sick, file workers compensation claims, or strike.
But no route would be run that could not turn a profit. If governments felt that some social benefit was gained by running "night owl" service with one or two passengers aboard, let them do it with free taxi fares or by chartering a bus from one of the companies, Chalk says.
After listening politely, the transit commission asked Chalk to put his ideas on paper. He is working on it. But there is no sign that the worker-owned approach will receive serious consideration at Metro.
For one, it would require the approval of Congress, the Virginia and Maryland state governments, the D.C. city government and the concurrence of the seven suburban governments served by Metro--jurisdictions that already have invested billions of dollars and unmeasured political capital in the Metro concept.
Moreover, Metro employes could be expected to resist, in court if necessary, a plan that would have them exchange well paid, secure jobs for ones in private firms that could fold.
"For him to think that labor's going to welcome him back to have 25 small employe-owned bus operations out here, he's got to be out of his mind," said Charles Boswell, head of the Amalgamated Transit Union local that represents Metro's drivers and mechanics.
But the project's biggest stumbling block is past experience. Transit is government-owned, it is pointed out, because private operators who had it went bankrupt. After World War II, when ridership peaked, competition from cars and passengers' resistance to fares that matched costs drove system after system into receivership.
Part of the blame for the private operators' woes was an emerging consensus in government that transit's proper goal is maximum social benefit, not profit. Transit reduces traffic jams and air pollution and gives mobility to people who cannot afford cars, it was argued. Fares must stay low enough to draw crowds.
Applying Chalk's thinking, they say, would mean limiting service to the handful of routes that make money and strand thousands of transit-dependent people.
"The issue is not private versus public," says Jack Gilstrap, executive vice president of the American Public Transit Association. "It's rather the goals and objectives that the community has set for the transit system. If the objective is that we want our systems to break even financially, then it means that we must be prepared for extremely high fares that will price the service out of the reach of a good segment of the community."
Currently, fares collected on Metrobus' 16,000 daily passenger trips cover about 42 percent of its $210 million annual operating budget. They contribute nothing toward capital costs, which are covered in full by federal and local grants.
Chalk claims he can streamline operations to the point that fares would cover all operating costs, all capital costs, and leave a profit. All this would be done without disastrous cuts in service, but Chalk is vague about just how he would do this.
"What they do with 2,000 men," he says, "I can do with 200, and will do a better job."