Efficiency is not a hallmark of the A2 bus. On its wide loop through Anacostia, it lurches to a stop every few feet. Sometimes it barely clears the curb lane before it pulls over again. The driver, R.L. Simons, announces every stop and greets every patron. The trip is less about shuttling from Point A to Point B than about making many points along the way.
Simons is one of Metrobus’ talkshow-host drivers. He never stops narrating and chuckling behind his big black sunglasses. “If something’s going wrong with his day,” says one woman rider, “you’ll never know it.”
On one midday route last fall, a rider stands up at the front and reminds the other passengers to stop by the Black Family Reunion event on the Mall the following weekend. Simons can’t help himself. “Y’all let me know if you go,” he says, pausing for effect before adding, “so I can rob your houses.” The bus cracks up. Simons gives us a huge smile, filling the mirror over his head with a broad expanse of teeth.
Every time a kid boards the bus, Simons announces, “Check-in time,” and extracts a high-five. Then he does it again on the kid’s way out. All the while, he hands out transfers like invitations to a party.
An older woman gets on with a grin that won’t stop. “We miss you on the A4,” she singsongs to Simons. “Yeah,” he says, laying on the charm. “They kept giving me raggedy old buses. Tryin’ to kill a brother out there.”
When Simons was driving the N line from the White House to Friendship Heights a couple of years back, he once got a five-page letter of complaint. The rider said he talked too much. Simons didn’t take it personally. “He was probably pissed that day,” Simons says now.
Simons has been driving buses for Metro for 15 years. His friends ask him why he doesn’t just transfer to the subway system, where the day-to-day is more predictable. He says he likes the bus better, plain as that. “The train is so mechanical,” he says. “I just like the open spaces and I love the people. I treat them the way I want to be treated. I don’t care who you are, what class you come from. I’ve driven all over D.C.”
As Simons warns, “Hang on now,” we lean into a sharp curve. “We’ll be on Saturday schedule tomorrow,” he announces at random. As tomorrow is Saturday, no one argues the point.
“Have a lovely weekend, madame. Watch your step,” Simons says to Barbara Best as she waves goodbye. Best, an eighth-grade teacher at Kramer Junior High School, has been taking Metrobus for 11 years. All the regular riders on the A2 know her. And they know her children, too. If she’s gone for a while, they’ll ask where she was. “There is a personal level about the bus, a familiarity,” Best says. “It gives you a sense of community.” The Metrorail, on the other hand, “is really efficient and quick and convenient. But you don’t get the same experience.”
Back on the bus, Simons is playing to a captive crowd of seven. “Y’all notice I hate my job, huh?” he calls out. “Where else do you get paid $5 an hour to mess with people?”
In truth, Simons makes considerably more than $5 an hour. His real wagecloser to $20 an houris Metrobus’ No. 1 problem, according to the people who run the system. They’ll tell you that the cost of paying drivers who have been around for years, who know the streets and the people, is what’s slowly pushing Metrobus out of business. But talk to the people who ride the buses, and they’ll tell you that the real reason the system is falling apart is that, well, the system is falling apart. Reduced schedules and routes mean that the busesthe transportation of first and last resort for many District residentsare going away.
As people quit taking buses and switch to the subway or carsor move out of the region altogetherthe local governments that subsidize Metrobus are forced to pay more and more to keep the buses running. In response, the suburbs have started ditching Metrobus and contracting out their bus routes to private companies, which are cheaper mostly because they pay their employees significantly less money.
Metrobus has become much smaller as a result. In 1977, Metrobus provided 99 percent of the area’s bus service; today, it provides just 73 percent. Metro board members, following the recommendations in a report by local and state political, business, and transportation leaders, recently approved a plan to save the bus by making big changes that they believe will move Metrobus into the 21st century. It’s a glossy report, and it has been hailed as a smart-talking, forward-looking treasure map to saving the meandering bus system from extinction. Although privatization would seem to be a shot through the heart of a truly regional bus system, the plan makes peace with the concept and even encourages it by allowing local jurisdictions to privatize up to 26 percent of existing routes. To serve the burgeoning needs of an expanding metro area, the plan recommends zerocount ’em, zeronew bus routes.
Like the privatization of myriad other government services, driving the bus onto the supply-demand curve is championed as a magic elixir to bus woes across the country. Metro officials insist that privatization is inevitable in an era when money is scarce and fewer and fewer suburbanites stray into the District for work or play. But it’s hard to imagine private companies scrambling to make sure people in the more isolated enclaves east of the river have the kind of integrated bus service they need. It’s easier to imagine prosperous neighborhoods carving out nice little bus services that run on roads paved with money.
Given some time, Metro’s critics say, the free-market future may look a lot like the dark ageswhen seniors, mothers, and poor people had to struggle to get from place to place. The bus, which was intended to democratize transportation, could end up being a lot more convenient for people
who can afford to get from one place to another any way they please.
After Los Angeles, D.C. is the most congested city in the nation, according to a recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute. Your average D.C. driver sits in traffic about 71 hours a year. (That’s eight hours more than L.A. drivers.) If you put a dollar value on all that delay and wasted fuel, D.C. drivers pay the highest “congestion tax” in the nation for their traffic jams: about $860 a person. And the future promises a snake of brake lights from here to the horizon, with estimates predicting a 70-percent increase in motor-vehicle travel by the year 2020.
It’s hard to figure that while cars stack up and back up, Metrobus ridership is free-falling all across the region. In D.C., ridership has dropped by almost 30 percent over the past decade. In your standard chicken-and-egg runaround, as ridership has plummeted, bus service has spiraled downward along with it. Over the past five years, Metrobus service has been slashed by about 27 percent in D.C., 21 percent in Virginia, and 10 percent in Maryland. In 1995, severe service cuts affected 87 percent of D.C.’s routes: There are bus stops in the District where the buses never seem to come because there are so few of them running.
You hear a lot of talk about how Washingtonians are in love with their cars and about various conclaves of regional industrialists clamoring for more highways and Metrorail stops. And there’s plenty of noise about HOV lanes, road rage, and crumbling bridges. But you just don’t hear much about the city buses, which deliver almost 106 million rides a year.
Tourists stick to Old Town Trolleys, cabs, and Metro trains. Most of the downtown elite burns up the Beltway each morning or sits, sullen, on the subway, reading the latest Oprah selection. But the bus is full of old people and little kids and women, residents who don’t live or aren’t going anywhere near a Metro station, or who couldn’t afford it anyway. Living without a car in D.C. is hard, they’ll have you know. It takes a lot of knowledge and a wellspring of patience. And it’s not getting easier.
Even though the population of the region has gone up by more than 40 percent over the past quarter century, there is less bus service today than 15 years ago. What remains is increasingly fragmented, with different jurisdictions setting different fares and schedules. And much of the system is built on outdated reasoning, with some of Metro’s 1,133 buses chugging along the same routes they ran during World War II, oblivious to the decades-old migration of city dwellers to the suburbs and beyond.
“At one point, you could take a Metrobus directly downtown from Southeast, but now you have to transfer at the Metro station to get another bus,” says Linda Whyten, who has lived in southeast Washington for most of her life and who does not own a car. Fifteen years ago, before the subway station’s opening, you saw a lot more buses on the road in Anacostia, Whyten remembers. Having to stop and transfer to another bus at the subway station adds 15 to 20 minutes to Whyten’s commute to her northwest Washington job. She says she often asks herself why Metro ever decided to reroute the Anacostia buses to the subway station. “It’s inconvenient,” she says. “I guess they do it to get more people to use the subway, as opposed to catching the bus. That would, I guess, give them a reason to cut the bus routes.”
Ideally, buses and subways run hand-in-glove. But the subway system has essentially cherry-picked the region’s high-intensity routes, leaving little money and few customers to ride the bus. That leaves isolated groups of stakeholders in the city and a dwindling constituency in the suburbs.
At the same time, suburban governments are bowing out of the Metrobus system to save money. They balk at the price of the service, even though Metrobus’ operating costs are about average for large city transit systems, which are not expected to be profitable. With a smaller and more impoverished constituency, public funds have dried up, so even though Metrobus’ overall costs have not significantly increased in constant dollars over the past 20 years, Metro has still hiked fares four times in the past six years. Metro riders are plenty price sensitive, given their average economic level, so ridership reliably drops when fares rise. The cycle whirs along, suggesting darker days for Metrobus.
“I think Metro has this idea that more people can just walk to the [subway] stations,” Whyten says. Once the Congress Heights and Southern Avenue subway stations open, she predicts, buses will be scarcer than ever. “If they do keep the buses going, it will be at such a low level that it will be ridiculousor they will just shuttle people between stations.”
It didn’t have to be this way. While it’s easy to dismiss the buses’ slow demise as yet another casualty of progress, happier endings have occurred in other large American cities. New York, for instance, has had its own share of troubles getting people to stay on the bus over the past couple of decades. Until recently, ridership had been steadily falling for more than 20 years. Between 1995 and 1996, ridership sank by over 5 percent, an alarming rate for just one year (and about the same drop seen in D.C.’s bus ridership that year).
But this year, New York’s bus story did an abrupt U-turn. Buses are booming. Between July 1996 and July 1997, weekday ridership increased 17 percent. The comeback is a result of New York’s decision to invest in its bus system andimagine thismake it easy for people to ride buses. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) announced its intentions to spend $15 million on better bus and subway service. Of that, $8 million will go to additional bus service, $1.4 million will go to rehabilitate 60 older buses, and $1.3 million will pay for 20 new bus dispatchers. The mayor and the governor are outdoing one another with plans to make bus fares cheaper for frequent users.
It’s in the details, though, that New York’s priorities shine through. You can now use one magic magnetic card to take the subway and the bus. And, most beautifully, there are free transfers for everyone: from bus to subway, from subway to bus, from bus to bus. No extra charge, no complicated conditions, periodan integrated, barrier-free system that allows subways to do what they do well and lets buses carry the rest of the load. As long as you do it within two hours, you can saddle up and ride public transit all over the city. New York transit officials cite the free transfer as the primary reason for the boost in bus ridership.
In D.C., by ugly comparison, you have to pay an extra 10 cents to get a bus-to-bus transfer from a bus driver (exact change, please). Then the driver tears off this sorry scrap of paper that you inevitably lose. If you instead pick up a transfer from the subway station to get a discounted bus fare, you can only use it in D.C. and Virginiadon’t bother trying to use it to ride on in Maryland. And even if you’re not in Maryland, you must use the transfer at the nearest bus stopeven if the bus you want stops a block farther away.
Or, as Metro explains so succinctly, “Transfers must be used at transfer points (where two routes intersect within one stop of each other in either direction) for travel in the same general direction. Transfers must be used in not less than one and one-half hours and not more than two hours from time of issue.” Uh-huh. And after you’re done crawling through the clown’s mouth and under the windmill, don’t bother asking about a transfer from the bus to the subway: There’s no such thing.
Beth Davidson, a 24-year-old who takes the bus from Adams Morgan to 14th and H Streets NW every morning, says your average bus commute is a study in frustration. Some trips are worse than othersonce she was attacked by a large, shrieking madwoman on the busbut most days she just wishes there were more buses. “They don’t run often enough,” she says, recounting how, on an average morning, she’ll watch a series of S2 buses whiz by, too full to stop. And she would very much like to see some connection between schedules and reality, Davidson says, complaining that the few buses that run don’t generally come on time.
A lot of bus riders say they’d rather ride the subwayif it stopped all over town and basically acted like a bus, that is. “There’s a lot of hostility on buses,” says Benjamin Burgess, who rides the 42 to his job at the National Gallery. “It’s a negative atmosphere,” he says, brushing Dorito crumbs off his Redskins jacket. But he says it depends on the bus, of course, as I brace myself for the inevitable string of examples. “The 42’s better. Georgia Avenue buses are the worst. And H Street buses are not always on time,” Burgess says, segueing into a rambling story about how he once got fired all because of a late bus. “That’s why I like the subway better.”
Metrobus has a well-deserved reputation for systemic churlishness. For years, schedules and route maps were unheard-of. Now, at least a third of the stops have posted fare policies and schedules, and Metro runs a decent information hotline. But in a clogged region desperate for public transit improvement, it’s still far from easy to ride the bus.
New York’s success story was engineered by Lawrence G. Reuter, president of the MTA. Before he got that job almost two years ago, Reuter was in charge of D.C.’s Metro. When he left D.C., he warned in a Washington Post story that because of the specter of privatization, Metrobus could already be “set for extinction.”
Last year, alarmed by the rising cost and fragmentation of the area’s bus service, a House Transportation subcommittee ordered Metro to take a good, hard look at itself. Or, rather, to have an independent panel look at it for $1 million. Thirty government, labor, business, and citizen representatives came together to concoct a plan to meet bus needs for the region through the year 2020. The Regional Mobility Panel, as it was called, met seven times last year, got some help from the usual retinue of pricey management consultants, and finally handed over its report to Congress at the end of September.
The plan it came up with would allow D.C., Maryland, and Virginia to take over many of their local bus routes, plucking them from Metrobus’ jurisdiction. For now, localities can only run routes the panel has designated as “local,” a label based on where they go and how much they cost to run. For example, if a route crosses a city border, it cannot be deemed local and thus cannot be privatized. In the new world contemplated by the panel, up to 20 percent of such routes could be privatized in D.C., and up to 26 percent of other local routes.
The plan would also freeze fares for six years and work to tailor bus routes to the needs of today’s commutersi.e., more suburb-to-suburb service. Good ideas, those. But it’s the panel’s embrace of privatization that has the bus drivers’ union and a motley but vocal crew of local activists and riders predicting the end of the city bus.
Josh Silver, president of Metrowatch (a group formed to fight fare increases) and one of just four citizen reps on the panel, says he had high hopes at first. “I thought, ‘Great, maybe we’re finally going to solve the problem of service cuts and fare increases, year after year.’ I thought, ‘We’re gonna get a bold plan to take Metrobus into the 21st century.’” But in the end, he couldn’t bring himself to put his name on the report the panel sent to Congress. “It quickly degenerated into a cost-cutting exercise,” Silver says.
Granted, the panel softened its final recommendations to cushion the immediate blow to the District, and many of those recommendations are necessary to preserve Metrobus. But it’s the panel’s acceptance of privatization that signals the official burial of the old way of looking at public transit. What many once viewed as a requisite support service, crucial to getting people without cars to jobs, hospitals, friends, and meetings, has now become a negotiable externality of modern living. “There’s no blaring of trumpets, no dramatic examples,” says Chris Niles of the Emergency Committee on the Metro Crisis. “But it’s happened by attrition.”
When policymakers talk about the city bus these days, they use terms like “cost effectiveness” and “market-driven service.” If you do a cost-benefit analysis of the bus system, it’s the suburb-to-suburb stops and the subway-feeder routes that bring in the gravy. Fill ‘er up at Point A, sail to Point B, and do it all over again. That’s the ticket.
But allowing local governments to privatize those juicy routes runs counter to the original mission of the panel. “Bus service will become less convenient as riders will have to transfer among many providers who are unlikely to coordinate fares or time schedules. Many current bus riders will give up and go back to their cars,” Silver predicts. And that, of course, will lead to still less money for Metro and more cuts, he says. Plus, private companies will likely take a bye on the least profitable routes, particularly those in the poorer, more dangerous parts of town.
If you talk to the people who use the buses, you’ll hear that the privatization shift is the wrong fix, replacing a service they only want to see more of. At the Amalgamated Transit Union’s behest, a national polling firm called Bannon Research conducted a survey last March of 800 adults in the region. The survey found that just about the only thing people don’t like about Metrobus is that there is not enough of it. About half those polled said they have a high opinion of Metrobus. Three-quarters said they would like to see Metrobus expand or stay the same. Only 9 percent thought we should eliminate Metrobus and leave bus service to local jurisdictions. Another survey sponsored by the panel itself found a similar level of devotion to Metrobus.
Over a mere two weeks last year, MetroWatch and some other community groups collected 10,000 signatures denouncing the panel’s recommendations. Most riders are savvy enough to know that privatization opens the door to cutting corners at the outset, and entire routes down the road. Carollyne Hutter has taken the 42 twice a day for years. She likes to be above ground, away from the tourists on the subway. “The bus seems more Washingtonian,” she says. But she has seen all the fare hikes and service cuts she can stomach. “I would be very sad if they cut more bus services,” she says. “It might even influence me to move.”
A dissenting minority report, which was sent along to Congress bearing the signatures of Silver and five other panel members, says the majority report’s recommendations will only stymie bus service further. “The majority report fails to address the major causes of Metrobus ridership loss,” the dissenters charge. “It does not propose expansions in Metrobus service. It does not have a realistic plan for freezing fares. It does not propose new Metrobus service that responds to demographic changes in the region.” The net effect, they say, will be still more ridership losses, leading to ever greater taxpayer costs and more congestion and pollution.
Recent experience suggests that the worrywarts may be right. When Fairfax County, Va., privatized its Reston and Herndon routes in January 1994, officials promised more, better, cheaper service for all. And in fact the county has saved about $600,000 a year, mostly due to cheaper labor costs. The Fairfax Connector bus company paid drivers lower wages and had them work fewer hours. But lo and behold, even though it had savings to plow back into the system, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has still cut bus service all across the county. In 1996, the board eliminated 13 lines outright and reduced service on eight more.
And the problems go beyond politicized funding. Only six months after the service began, some Fairfax Connector drivers complained to their union that the buses were dirty and unsafe. Next, 75 drivers went on a daylong strike, claiming they were overworked and underpaid. As of last spring, only 13 of the original 52 drivers were still with the Connector.
The average Metrobus driver has 20 years of experience. That kind of longevity, while it doesn’t come cheap, cultivates drivers like Simons who play comedian, psychiatrist, and policeman all in a day’s work. “You get people coming in mad at the world,” he says. “They want to pick a fight with you, and you have to have the maturity and knowledge of the world to know how to handle them.” A greenhorn low-wage driver from Virginia probably wouldn’t know what to do with some of the passengers Simons sees every day. It can get really hectic, really fast.
Over a seven-month period this year, 10 drivers from Simons’ Southeast Metrobus division were either assaulted or robbed on their routes, according to Jim Alexander, the superintendent of the area.
Simons regularly gets guys walking right on by the fare box with a beer in their hands. He usually just lets them go. Once, after he accidentally bumped the fender of a car that had cut him off, the driver got out, forced his way onto the bus, and attacked him. Another time, a passenger waved a gun at Simons and promised he’d be back as he slinked off the bus.
Frequent passenger Whyten says her fellow riders, especially the many senior citizens, need drivers who care about their jobs. That’s the main reason she doesn’t think privatization can work. “When you’re making seven, eight dollars an hour driving a busnow, how concerned are you really going to be about the safety of your riders?”
The average Metrobus driver makes $18.35 an hourtwice what some private bus drivers earn. It hardly seems excessive, given what a lot of drivers endure. And the main reason Metrobus drivers earn so much is that they’ve been around so long; the starting wage is only $11.34 an hour.
While Metrobus drivers earned among the highest wages in the nation five years ago, the union has since compromised and lowered starting wages to more closely resemble suburban drivers’ earnings. Average wages now rank in the bottom half of the country’s 10 largest transit systems.
The downside to privatization shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, 30 years ago, before the transit authority came in and took it over, private companies ruled the bus system. Four major bus companies had created a patchwork of routes that made neither money nor sense. Service was slip-sliding away. Riders’ No. 1 complaint was rude drivers. And black passengers complained that white neighborhoods got better, cleaner buses. O. Roy Chalk, who ran the city’s biggest bus service, had become the town villain, repeatedly upping bus fares. So down swooped a government agency to catch the corpse, and Metrobus came to be, consolidating the mess into one unified transit authority. On Oct. 14, 1973, the Post reported that the D.C. government had taken control of “a multimillion dollar lemon” at 2 a.m. that day.
“Privatization didn’t work in the past, and I don’t see how it will work now,” says one Metrobus driver who has been behind the big wheel for more than 30 years. “The system just won’t sustain itself under private ownership.” In the ’60s, his buses were packed. Then, in the ’70s, he watched the seats empty out. As private companies lost riders, they hiked fares, and then lost even more riders. (The driver requested that his name not be used, explaining, “How do you think I kept this job for so long?”)
Turns out Metrobus couldn’t make buses very affordable, either, partly because it also did a crappy job of adapting to changing demographics. Today, the buses are once again driven by four major companies: Connector in Fairfax, Dash in Alexandria, Ride-On in Montgomery County, and good ol’ Metrobus.
“The history of transportation in Washington, D.C., suggests that every so often the bus system will merge and then splinter off again,” says Metro superintendent Alexander. Even though today’s companies have the benefit of local subsidies to help ease the costs of bus servicesomething the for-profit operations of old didn’t havethe potential for fragmentation and service cuts is strikingly familiar.
Metro, it should be said, had little choice in the push to privatize. The suburbs have been taking over local routes for years and would have continued doing so with or without some grand “plan.” But in the bus system’s time line, privatization keeps resurfacing in D.C. because it’s consistent with the area’s long-standing approach to transportation policy: Suburbs come before the city, business before the masses.
In November, the Post Magazine’s special MCI Center pep-rally edition included a two-page “Mass Transits” guide-to-getting-there. Bracing for the 20,000 people expected to descend on the downtown arena for big games, the story detailed how to catch the Metro, how to find parking, and where to hail cabs. But one transit system that was not so much as mentioned was Metrobus. (Just so you know, at least four bus routes stop at the arena, some well past midnight.)
Since its conception in 1976, the subway system has been Metro’s favorite child, making up for the antics of Metrobus. Even back then, the subway could do no wrong. Construction costs came in at nearly four times the original estimate. In the late ’70s, Metro officials visualized a completed rail system that would boast an annual ridership of 323 million people. Nearly two decades later, in 1995, ridership had reached just 159 million, less than half the total projected.
Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review and longtime D.C. political gadfly, believes that though no one wants to admit it, the $10-billion, 92-mile Metrorail system was never really about solving the area’s transportation needs. From the start, the subway was a land development scheme, Smith says, designed to funnel people into and out of the suburbs and spur economic growth only around the station stops.
“Metro marks the beginning of the downfall of Washington,” Smith says dramatically, looking back on the history of mass transit in D.C. “Without a commuter tax, the Metro was disastrous,” he says. “What you were doing was building your own gallows.” The subway made it easyeven preferablefor businesspeople to live and work outside the city and for tourists to stay in hotels outside the city.
When Simons started driving in the 1980s, most buses conveyed people downtown. These days, he says, “Metro directs our buses into the train stations, like feeders.” The A2 makes a loop in Anacostia, starting and ending at the subway station. “They force these people to ride the rail,” he says matter-of-factly. After all, everyone knows why the rail system gets all the breaks. “That’s Metro’s baby,” Simons says, laughing. “It’s state-of-the-art, it’s the wave of the future….Basically, it serves most people in the suburbs.”
In Anacostia, riders get a bargain fare, he points out, but only if they ride the bus to the Anacostia Metro station. Provided they go straight to the subway station, the bus ride costs only 60 cents, as opposed to $1.10. (Of course, riders then have to pay full fare for the Metro.) “You notice that Southeast was the last part of the rail they started doing,” Simons says. “I think those people got neglected.”
Bus activists claim that the subway gets attention because it caters to better-off suburbanites with attention to spare, but in all fairness, the subway is also more popular because it needs less financial help. The rail system covered about 74 percent of its costs in 1993; the buses coughed up only about 34 percent of their costs that year. Of course, that’s not counting the $10 billion the region has sunk into the subway system so farnor the $189 million in upkeep the trains urgently need to keep running.
But the revenue discrepancy isn’t just about efficiency. Metrobus’ average fare rings in at about half the average rail fare, partly because of discounts and deals that make the bus cheaper to ride. For example, after you’ve paid your full Metrorail fee, you can get a transfer ticket that gives you a discount on your bus fare. But you get no such break transferring from the bus to the subway. Plus, senior citizens pay only 50 cents to ride the bus anywhere, while they pay from 55 cents to $1.60 to ride the subway. In a poll taken by Metro last February, residents explained why they don’t take public transit more often. A majority cited scheduling and delays as disincentives for taking the bus but then pointed to expense as the main deterrent to taking the subway.
Look around you the next time you take a bus. You’ll see a lot of the most vulnerable people in the city: young people, old people, poor people, and mothers. The bus attracts these people not just because it stops much more frequently in more parts of town than the subway but also because it’s cheaper to ride. Buses also run hours after the subway has shut down. (Up until the service cuts a few years ago, buses ran all night.)
People without cars use the bus like a carsomething the train really couldn’t help them with even if it did stop near their homes, jobs, or schools. Michele Petty has taken Metrobus for 10 years. These days, she takes the 90 and then the 52 (or sometimes the 54) every morning to drop off Ayonna, her 6-month-old baby girl, at her baby sitter’s. Then she takes a third bus to work. She gets up an hour and a half early to do this. If she had her choice, she’d take the subway, Petty says. But the subway stations are too far away for her to be hauling bags and babies from stop to stop.
Like most services that help the less well-off, Metrobus doesn’t come cheap. Each year, the buses cost local governments about $180 million, a cost that has never been fairly distributed in the region. Even though many bus routes have left the city and moved out to the suburbs over the past 20 years, the method used to calculate each region’s share of the costs has stayed the same. As a result, D.C. has consistently paid more than its shareparticularly when it comes to the system’s fixed costs.
Under one of the Regional Mobility Panel’s smarter recommendations, the allocation formula will change to more fairly distribute the heavy burden of the bus in the future. It will also give Metro more centralized authority over bus routes and their fundingthe kind of control the subway system has always enjoyed. “Under the old formula,” explains Peter Benjamin, Metro’s assistant general manager for finance and program development, “if a local jurisdiction wanted to get quick and easy access to savings, they’d go to the buses.”
Because of the funding system, for each dollar a jurisdiction withheld from the bus system, it would get a dollar back. But to cut spending on the subway, in comparison, each jurisdiction would have to get agreement from all the other jurisdictions first. And even then, it would receive only 10 to 40 cents back on each dollar withheld, Benjamin explains. The new formula dulls the incentive for suburbs to back out of bus service and boosts the ability of Metro to make intelligent decisions about fares, schedules, and routes for buses all over the region.
But the panel stopped short of recommending that Metrobus fix its biggest funding problem and ensure a dedicated tax to fund the bus system. Most places in the country pay for their bus systems through reliable funding sources (e.g., sales taxes). In San Francisco, for example, 95 percent of the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s (BART’s) costs are covered by a sales and property tax. In Atlanta, 90 percent of transit costs are financed by an earmarked percentage of the property tax. And in New York City, dedicated taxes pay 61 percent of the costs.
In D.C., a puny 4 percent of Metro’s costs are financed through a reliable, dedicated tax (a 2-percent gas tax in Northern Virginia). The rest comes out of local funds, forcing Metro to compete with other public services for funding each and every year. Before he left for New York, Reuter’s parting advice was to fix the way Metro was funded.
For now, a funding subcommittee of the panel has reached an impasse over the issue of dedicated funding. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who chairs Metro’s board of directors and sits on the panel’s funding subcommittee, says the discussions have “stalled.” Although he is willing to support the District’s participation in a designated tax, Maryland and Virginia have refused to consider raising taxes of any kind, Evans says. “The three jurisdictions have very different interests in financing the Metro system,” he says.
More than once over the course of its deliberations, the paneland particularly the suburban representativeshas been accused of shying away from controversial alternatives that don’t cater to business and suburban interests. “This whole thing is about race, the punch line of which, of course, is class,” Niles says. “As it stands right now, the people who ride Metrobus tend to be poorer and they tend to be blacker. The bus doesn’t serve the political elite the way Metro trains do.”
Selling off the bus service while at the same time barking at the poor to get off welfare and get to work strikes Niles as particularly hypocritical. “Since it’s all the rage these days to blame the poor for their condition, why not make them pay for their sins by making the home-to-work trip really difficult, or impossible even?” he asks.
The head of the Regional Mobility Panel is John Milliken, former Virginia transportation secretary and former Metro chairman. In August, Milliken wrote a persuasive “Close to Home” piece for the Post in which he advocated the panel’s plan as “an attempt to save the region’s Metrobus system.” Interestingly, though, while the piece mentioned his former transit authority post, the Post failed to note that he was also chair of the transportation committee of the Greater Washington Board of Tradethe area’s most influential association of business leaders.
Business, of course, is primarily situated outside the city. And suburban employers rarely subsidize transit use for their employeesbut almost all offer free or subsidized parking, according to a 1997 Metro study. This past year, the board of trade has intensified its campaign to channel money toward road and bridge building, proposing that the area build $20 billion worth of roads over the next 20 years. Niles believes it’s no coincidence that the panel’s report is “quite consistent” with the board of trade’s plan for rampant highway construction. Milliken disagrees that business interests ruled the panel. “There were a whole variety of interests on the panel,” he says. The final report “certainly strengthens the Metro system.”
Metro is run by Richard A. White, who has served as general manager for the past year and a half. White came to D.C. from BART in San Francisco, where he and the rest of BART’s management were lauded for averting a strike in 1994 and giving workers more say in the organization’s policies. But BART also caters to white, middle-class riders who live in the suburbs. While San Francisco officials gave priority to BART, the city’s bus services were sadly neglected, according to a recent San Francisco Bay Guardian story. And San Francisco’s regional bus system is a study of fragmentation, with 27 different companies on the road.
MetroWatch’s Silver suggests that White has dealt with D.C.’s bus system as if it were an ugly cousin of the subway. White’s colleagues couldn’t disagree more. They say that from his first day on the job, White has made it his mission to save the bus system and has done an admirable job of doing just that. “I thought his odds were very, very low,” Benjamin says. “But he pulled it off. He pulled off a political coup that I have never seen before and nobody else was willing to try.”
Just getting the region’s squabbling leaders to agree to stem the privatization tide and invest in Metro was a victory, Metro officials say. “Even before I officially started here,” White remembers, “my first meeting with the board was…about how do you get out of the bus system.” The options were frighteningly clear, he says. “If [the bus systems problems were] left unchecked, we were going to be largely moving…toward extinction of the bus system.”
White admits that the region has let the bus system slide in recent years. “Jurisdictions have felt the demand everywhere and have now, more recently, chosen to allocate resources to the highway side,” he says. The panel’s consensus, then, “is almost a miracle,” he says. “We have a commitment to a regional Metrobus system that is admittedly smaller than it was, but we have a commitment to that system and to Metrobus as the operator.” White is fond of saying that before the panel convened, Metro had “control over 0 percent of 100 percent of the system.” Today, “We have 100 percent control over 73 percent of the system.”
But if we’ve all been saved, the bus drivers haven’t gotten the message. The union has viciously attacked the plan as evidence that White is just like all the Metro leaders who came before him. In a July letter to White, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 president James M. Thomas Jr. summed up the union’s opinion of White and his predecessors. The transit authority’s general manager, Thomas wrote, is “usually a white male from out of town who has all sorts of great ideas but ends up doing what the area politicians or jurisdictions tell him to do.”
So far, says union secretary treasurer Craig Simpson, White’s tenure “has not been what I had hoped for. I had hoped that he would strengthen the regional bus system. Instead, I believe the plan will lead to its destruction.”
Although White has promised that the plan will not lead to any layoffs, fare hikes, or pay cuts over the next five years, Simpson thinks he’s naive. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that somebody’s going to pay for that,” Simpson says. “My belief is that the management intends to get it out of the wages and benefits of the employees, and I’m not going to agree to that.”
Rod Burfield, Metro’s director of business planning and development, denies that the system’s finances will be balanced on the backs of drivers and that the suburbs have ever been favored by Metro or the panel. “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the Regional Mobility Plan that would lead to the conclusion that anybody, any patron in the region, is being disadvantaged,” he says.
As for naysayers like Niles and Silver, Burfield says he’s “frankly a little bit baffled” by their outrage. To the contrary, he says, the panel members “deserve all the credit in the world. It really was a remarkable effort [to reach a consensus] in the most complex metropolitan area to govern in the nation.”
Evans agrees that the panel has done itself proud. “I think we did what we set out to do,” he says. “We’ve stabilized Metrobus.” Although he says he’d like to have Metrobus run all buses in the region, Evans considers the 26-percent ceiling on privatization a reasonable compromise. “The other option was to do nothing,” he says, in which case the surrounding counties would probably have continued to privatize on their own. Whether or not they would have privatized more than the 26 percent now allowed, Evans says, we have no way of knowing. “You’ll get critics at any percentage of the pie,” he adds.
“The fact that we got this agreement is quite an achievement,” Evans says. “Other places have a state to oversee all these decisions. Here we have essentially three states. There’s no superior body that can make all three of us agree.”
Evans has promised to do everything he can to make sure no D.C. routes are privatized in the near future. Silver has asked Evans to put that promise in writing, which Evans says he will not do. “Why should I?” he asks, adding that his word should
be good enough.
Silver concedes that the panel had a lot of earnest members who faced hard problems. But, he adds, “Policymakers are blind to some extent, because they don’t use the bus.” A lot of the panel members, Silver believes, “have a love affair with the highway, a love affair with Metrorail….Many of them don’t understand how many thousands of people depend upon the bus in D.C., people who don’t have any other choice.”
Evans, for one, says he is not a regular bus rider, although he did ride a bus from Georgetown to Dupont Circle a couple of months ago. He does, however, take the subway quite frequently. As does White. “I can’t commute by bus. I’m a product of the problem we’re dealing with,” White says, explaining how no buses run between his home in Fairfax County and his job in the District. Critics would agree that White epitomizes the problem, because his transportation needs are built around ingress and egress between a moneyed suburb and a job in the District.
At one of the panel’s final meetings last September, 20 of the 23 members present were white. They listened to everything the mostly black crowd of dissenting drivers and riders had to say. Then they moved their plan forward anyway, embracing the privatization mantra as a reasonable compromise. As with most compromises, though, one side makes out betterparticularly when the other side is not even at the table.
Implementation of the grand plan has already begun. Montgomery County has proposed taking over four more lines this summer, which the union estimates will mean 22 fewer drivers needed for Metrobus. And Fairfax County is reportedly planning to expand its Connector service.
Imagining D.C.’s bus situation 20 years from now, Whyten just laughs. “Twenty years? Twenty years from now, I don’t even envision there being any buses in Southeast,” she says. “Let’s not even say 20 yearslet’s say 10 years.”CP