HOW FAR DOES Metrobus have to go to live up to its potential? According to a panel of public transportation officials who came to Washington to review the system, a long way. But a start can be made that won't require any great infusion of cash. Metro need only adopt a simple principle: The needs of riders must come first.

The creation of an independent advisory board made up of bus and rail riders from across the region could help Metrobus focus on what its customers really want. One thing they want is well-maintained buses. Riders who have other options are likely to shun dirty or dented buses. Also, passengers need more of the full-color route maps that are missing from many bus shelters and Metro stations. Steps must be taken to ensure better driving. Currently, the biannual driver certification process involves an operator chatting with an instructor about certain procedures. The recertification course advocated by the panel would be more formal, involving a written exam and a driving test.

With an average bus age of about 10 years -- the panel advises bringing it down to five or six -- it is all the more important that operators inspect their vehicles before each route. Federal law requires such inspections, and yet virtually no Metrobus drivers were performing them until the panel informed Metro of the neglect earlier this year. Months later, the compliance rate is about 70 percent. That's an improvement, but why is the law still being ignored the other 30 percent of the time? The answer lies in a lack of supervision, especially on nights and weekends.

The panel has provided a clear outline of what needs to be done. Metrobus must focus on the basics: purchasing new buses, filling staff vacancies to reduce costly overtime, hiring more supervisors and keeping route maps and timetables stocked on buses and in train stations. Metrobus may never be the most glamorous way to travel, but it's a necessity for too many residents to let it languish.