For this fine Sunday morning, we take as our text some excerpts from testimony on Aug. 14, 1972, by U.S. Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe. A joint hearing of the House and Senate District committees was considering public acquisition by Metro of the privately owned D.C. Transit System and three suburban bus companies.
"In recent years," Volpe said, "transit services in the national capital area have steadily deteriorated while fares have steadily increased. The companies are at the moment caught up in a vicious circle in which deterioration of service and fare increases compelled by economic necessity eat away at existing levels of ridership, thereby reducing revenues and forcing service deterioration and additional fare hikes.
"Since 1965, transit fares in this region have increased by approximately 100 percent . . . .
"Public ownership would carry with it two important advantages. First, a new public owner would enjoy substantially reduced operating expenses through a consolidation of facilities, and by not being subject to certain taxes and interest charges . . . . "
Moreover, Metro "would be equipped to respond quickly and efficiently to the changing needs of its riders . . . .
"If there were a deficit, it would be very small, and I would hope that the rail rapid transit would carry its own weight, which has usually been the case, and I know in Boston where Volpe had served as governor of Massachusetts the rail rapid transit usually almost supports itself. It is the bus feeder systems that really brought the total picture down to a real deficit operation . . . .
"As to whether or not a year, or two years, or five years from now you will have a break-even or perhaps a black-ink profit picture to show would require more than what I can give to you. Yes, we have thought about it . . . . "
That was little more than 10 years ago. Congress passed the pending bill, and in January and early February of 1973, Metrobus came into being. Basic fares have since risen 50 percent, and will go up further in April. But ridership has not declined. In 1972, the four private companies carried 116 million passengers. Last year Metrobus carried 136 million. (The 10-year passenger total, an interesting but meaningless figure, is 1.2 billion.) That doesn't count the subways, which began running in 1976.
But what color ink have we seen? Red. In a virtual torrent. Volpe's crystal ball, it turns out, was cloudy indeed. In 1970, the four area bus companies combined reported a total operating loss of just over $1 million. And keep in mind that the companies had to buy and finance their buses and other equipment on the open market.
Metro's currently projected one-year loss--cash money, which 10 years after the takeover must be raised chiefly from area taxpayers--will total about $180 million, of which about $120 million goes to pay for running the buses. For some area jurisdictions, the subsidy has become the largest single expense item after schools.
And that doesn't count the investment in new equipment and facilities, some $250 million worth, financed from federal, state and local funds.
In fairness, it should be noted that other big cities have very similar problems. Solving them, alas, is seemingly a no-win situation.
If rescuing the private systems from collapse was the purpose of Metrobus, the system has succeeded. But the dented, dirty buses, with graffiti-covered seats, often inoperative air-conditioning systems and plastic windows that riders can't even see through don't measure up to the glowing promises of 1972 and 1973 of speed, comfort and efficiency.
My own judgment, as a quarter-century local transit rider and longtime transportation reporter, is that Metrobus wins a grade of around C.
So it's a qualified Happy 10th Birthday, Metrobus. We might not love you, but we need you. We're in this together.