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I read with interest Amanda Ripley’s article on the road to extinction faced by the Metrobus system (“Missing the Bus,” 1/23) and was surprised by the lack of historical perspective in the story and possible strategies that might create a renaissance in Washington’s surface transit operations.
First, the story of Washington’s bus system as we know it was the outgrowth of the former streetcar system, which closed on Jan. 28, 1962. Most of the city’s present route structure, including their numeric designations, were taken verbatim from former car lines. Both the old D.C. Transit and its predecessor Capital Transit operated a series of 35 trolley routes on 10 major lines reaching nearly every corner of the city. As early as 1922 and as late as 1947, plans were under way for a streetcar subway that would have greatly reduced downtown travel time to a number of locations. In fact, the 1946 plan called for the depression of tracks on Connecticut, Florida, and Pennsylvania Avenues. The Georgia Avenue line was to be rebuilt along what could be termed “light rail” standards, complete with high-speed service.
Bus service began in the nation’s capital in the early ’20s with the opening of the 16th Street line. Service was expanded to Massachusetts Avenue and quickly spread to lightly patronized rail lines on the city’s outer edges. In 1935, the first major rail-to-bus conversions began with the Rockville, P Street (Dupont to Georgetown), Chevy Chase, and Anacostia lines. This was followed by a period of stability, then more conversions (Benning Road) in 1949.
Following the 1955 transit strike, Congress and the D.C. Corporation Counsel mandated an all-bus system within six years. Despite pleas from citizens’ groups and even D.C. Transit owner O. Roy Chalk, rubber-tire transit was to be our future. Beginning in 1956, with the conversion of the No. 20 Rosslyn line, until that fateful night in January 1962, the conversion rate could only be termed a “rape.” Ironically, in 1959 (the last full year rail/bus figures for profit and loss were shown) the rail lines showed a profit of nearly $1 million per route, while bus lines lost money. In fact, D.C. Transit had to lease old New York City buses to effect the final conversions of the Florida Avenue and U Street lines. Thus, from 1962 until the creation of Metro, the bus system sank deep into debt while dwindling ridership faced ever-increasing fare hikes in an attempt to cover costs.
What’s to be done? Well, for starters, light rail technology may prove to be the answer for part of our surface transportation needs. Even the mayor has come out in favor of light rail along the Rhode Island Avenue corridor as one way to bring about revitalization. This could be applied to other more affluent neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Upper Northwest. Such cities as Portland, San Diego, Dallas, and our neighbor to the north, Baltimore, are already operating growing light rail systems. These systems have demonstrated considerable success in attracting riders who would never have dreamed of riding a bus.
Secondly, I think route restructuring is a necessity not only to feed Metrorail but in terms of the economic viability of the system. As stated, many of the routes have existed in their present form since the 1940s, or longer. Shouldn’t prudent management practices dictate that these be examined in light of ridership trends to better meet demand?
Public-private partnerships might be considered as one more way to attract riders. Employers charter dedicated bus services to help transport employees from various locations to their work sites and home again. Privatization of certain services could effect some cost savings and provide options not presently available to area commuters.
As it stands, the present system of bus transportation will not survive as we know it. However, we must begin to seriously consider alternatives that will meet our surface transportation needs well into the next century.