Metro officials outlined plans yesterday for $830 million in improvements to the bus system during the next five years -- money to buy new vehicles, overhaul middle-aged ones and create a real-time information system that will tell passengers when the next bus will arrive.
Although officials at the nation's fifth-largest bus system celebrated the proposed investment, the plan falls short of recommendations by a panel of outside experts who reviewed Metrobus this year and found it seriously lacking.
Riders make 442,787 trips a day on Metrobuses, which travel 350 routes reaching from the District to Virginia and Maryland.
A panel of bus managers from systems in Houston, Toronto, New York and San Mateo, Calif., told Metro in June that it should improve nearly every aspect of its 1,460 fleet: equipment, operations, driver training and maintenance.
The panel said Metro needs to invest in its bus system, which it compared to a rubber band that was stretched too thin and about to break. A key recommendation was to replace old buses with new ones to increase reliability and reduce maintenance costs. The panel said the average Metrobus is twice as old as it should be. The average age should be five years old.
Under the plan presented yesterday to Metro directors, the transit system would acquire nearly 900 buses between now and fiscal 2011 for $488 million, reducing the average age of the fleet from 10.1 years to 7.5 years, still older than the recommended level.
"In my time on the board, I don't think we ever looked for an average bus age of less than 10 years," said Gladys Mack, who represents the District. "It's really exciting."
The panel also recommended that Metro invest in technology to allow it to better match service to demand.
And it said Metro should update repair garages because most are cramped and poorly lighted and ventilated, making it difficult for mechanics to work efficiently. Neither recommendation was included in the plan.
The proposal provides for technology that would allow managers to always know the location of each Metrobus, an important tool to manage service.
And it provides for a new radio system that Metro officials say would make communication with drivers easier.
The plan would also fund a real-time information system, similar to the devices Metro installed in the subway, which allow riders to know how long they have to wait for the next train. Metro officials have been talking for years about providing such technology to bus riders. They said the first phase would be running by June.
Jim Graham, who represents the District on the Metro board and has ridden Metrobus a handful of times in the past several years, questioned the need for real-time information for bus passengers.
But Chris Zimmerman, who represents Arlington County on the board, argued that it is vital. "As a bus rider, this is really important to me," he said. "If I'm waiting for a train, there's only so much time to wait before I know a train is coming. But when I go to a bus stop, there's a real question about whether the bus is coming. It means a lot to know this thing is running late or, in some cases, the one you think you missed is still coming."
In addition to using a cell phone, the Internet or personal digital assistant to check the whereabouts of a bus, passengers at five major bus stops would be able to read the information from display signs. The signs would be at the Pentagon, Silver Spring, Friendship Heights, Anacostia and Gallery Place stations.
Eventually, the signs could be installed at other bus stops. Metrobus has about 13,000 stops across the region.
Dan Tangherlini, the District's transportation director who represents the city on the Metro board, suggested that Metro could invest further in the bus system if it acted creatively.
The District, for example, is getting a contractor to fund a real-time bus information system at some District-owned bus shelters in exchange for advertising space on the structures. "We're getting this free," he said.