A dozen or so passengers stepped off the No. 80 bus in front of Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington, some of them with hardly a moment to spare. Dashing in front of the bus, Irma Barahona headed across 12th Street toward the hospital entrance. She made her way through the corridors, glancing at her watch as she walked briskly to her 11 a.m. appointment.
The bus had picked her up half an hour late at the Brookland-CUA Metro station, where she had arrived on an H4 bus from her home in Northwest Washington.
“Good thing I left home early,” Barahona, 55, said after arriving to see her ophthalmologist.
When the 80 is delayed, so are patients of the many hospitals served by the route, from George Washington University Hospital to MedStar Washington Hospital Center to Providence Hospital. And these days, the 80 is plagued by delays.
Metro officials say they know that many patients at Providence and the other medical facilities depend on this bus. Metro knows, too, that the current service isn’t cutting it, so the transit agency is studying the route, trying to figure how to speed it up so the hospitals and their patients are assured of having the vital transportation link.
“One of the top issues will be how to deal with traffic congestion that 80-line buses routinely encounter,” Metro spokesman Philip Stewart said.
But transit agency officials say funding is not available for immediate improvements.
With more infirm riders than many of the region’s bus routes, the 80 creates particular issues for Metro. The bus picks up many passengers who use wheelchairs or walkers or are otherwise limited in their mobility. Accommodating them demands a little more time at the bus stop, and wheelchairs take up more space in already crowded buses.
And although hospital patients are perhaps the most reliant on the route, they are not the only travelers it serves. Blue-collar workers get on and off along K Street NW, at Gallery Place and at Union Station. Students use the bus to reach Catholic and Trinity Washington universities in Brookland. Clients of mental-health and drug-treatment clinics in Foggy Bottom are regulars on the 80. And with the rapid office and housing development in the NoMa neighborhood, more young professionals are joining the mix.
The route is one of the busiest in the Metro system: It has about 7,500 passengers on an average weekday, up by about 500 riders from three years ago, according to Metro. And unlike some major routes, the 80 stays busy throughout the day, with patients and hospital employees coming and going.
“For us, it is a major means of transportation. It is how many of our patients and residents get here,” said Michael Thompson, senior director of community partnerships at Providence Hospital.
Officials at Providence, which serves many low-income people, say many of the patients rely on public transportation and prefer Metrobus to Metrorail, which is more expensive. But even those who use Metrorail often end up using the bus, too, because the hospital is about a mile from the Fort Totten and Brookland stations.
“There is a lot of dependence on the bus system, and I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon,” Thompson said.
Bus riders complain that buses don’t run as frequently as they’d like and that when they arrive at a stop, they are often crowded. Rarely do the buses arrive on time, they say.
Metrobus planner Douglas Stallworth said part of the problem is the route: At just over 10 miles, it is especially long and often slowed by downtown gridlock. Although the 80 is supposed to run every 15 minutes, riders say they often end up waiting more than 30 minutes.
Demand for the service has also increased, partly among the elderly and the disabled, Stallworth said. Many of them, he said, are taking advantage of free rides available to those who qualify for the agency’s MetroAccess service, a costly door-to-door service for them.
In December, Metro made a small change that riders and agency officials say has averted one frequent bottleneck. Buses traveling south on North Capitol Street now use the bypass under New York Avenue, avoiding congestion at that busy intersection.
Metro is looking to make other minor route alterations and adding limited-stop bus service to the corridor to reduce delays. Another change being considered is eliminating service west of Farragut Square.
Systemwide, Metrobus’s average weekday ridership is rising, and Metro is projecting that the bus system will increasingly become more attractive in part because the bus fare is lower than Metrorail’s.
Jerry Harrison, 60, a Capitol Heights resident who transfers from the No. 96 to the 80 at North Capitol and Pierce streets NW to get to a drug-treatment clinic in Foggy Bottom, said he hopes that any changes would mean additions rather than cuts. He could take the train from Capitol Heights to Foggy Bottom, but he takes the 80 because it is cheaper and, with no steady employment, he needs to save every penny he can.
“I am getting myself straight,” he said as the bus sat in traffic. “The bus takes me where I need to be every day and at half the cost of the Metro.”
Back at Providence, Yvonne Lee, 65, said she’s used to waiting for the bus. A Southeast Washington resident who volunteers with Meals on Wheels at Providence, Lee takes the 80 bus to the hospital every Wednesday.
“Another one will be along,” she said as she slowly walked to the bus stop’s bench. As the minutes went by, she was joined by hospital patients waiting for the bus to go home. “I usually always just miss the bus, because I walk very slow.”
She doesn’t complain. She said she’s thankful that the 80 stops near the hospital entrance. She said she just wishes the buses would run every 15 minutes — as they are supposed to.