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Before an audience of disgruntled Metrobus riders, two Monday public hearings at Metro’s downtown headquarters sprawled over each other and into the night. The hearings, which called for Metro users to respond to proposed drastic cutbacks in bus service, were scheduled for 2 and 7:30 p.m., but the first didn’t end until almost 8, and the second ended just a few minutes before the final trains of the night left the nearby Judiciary Square Metro station.
At issue are the proposed cutbacks; fare increases for the elderly, Anacostia riders and rail-to-bus transfers; and the legislative and bureaucratic failures that led to them. The D.C. Council, which authorizes the funding for bus service Metro provides in the city, failed to appropriate $17.6 million to keep service at its current level. And the planners at Metro, which has long treated Metrobus as an unwanted stepchild, didn’t consult riders in devising cutbacks, including among them many controversial proposals (such as eliminating the L4) that have been rejected before.
That the 42 is on the table shows what these proposals are all about: cutting costs, not increasing efficiency. That route, which runs from Stadium-Armory to Mount Pleasant, is one of city’s busiest, carrying 11,000 riders a day. It’s a Metrobus success story, yet the plan would sever it into three parts, replacing the Farragut Square to Mount Pleasant section with expansion of the X2 route, which currently runs from Capitol Heights to Lafayette Square. That change would mean less frequent service provided by 60-foot-long “articulated” buses, which—as many at the hearings testified—would be hard pressed to navigate Dupont Circle and Mount Pleasant Street.
“[The 42] is not broken and I don’t know why you want to mess with it!” noted Columbia Heights activist Dorothy Brizill. That’s true not only of the 42, but of most of the routes marked for curtailment or elimination.
Take, for example, such rush-hour buses as the 46, D1, D7, H1, K8, N1, N3, and X9. To an accountant, cutting these makes sense: It’s expensive to provide buses and drivers for routes that run only during rush hour. But these routes carry a significant number of riders who would likely abandon Metrobus altogether if their service were removed. The hearings were packed with people defending these routes, some of whom even offered to pay a premium fare for the service. By targeting such routes, Metro is as much as admitting that it intends to suppress ridership; cutting popular buses invites further decline of service and patronage—and openly flirts with defying the Clean Air Act.
The boisterous hearings, from which Metro cops removed several angry people, featured testimony in both evangelical and Marxist modes. Metrobus driver Mike Golash connected the cutbacks to the peso crisis, and Howard University economics professor Rodney Green blamed “the whole system of capitalism.”
One interesting development was the involvement of Metrobus drivers, who did much to publicize the hastily scheduled and inadequately promoted hearings. (Despite the heavily Latino patronage of the 42, for example, there were no notices in Spanish.) If the cutbacks are instituted, Metro would fire as many as 200 bus operators. Many drivers attended the hearings, and at their vocal insistence, Amalgamated Transit Union President James M. Thomas Jr. delivered his testimony at both hearings, the only person to do so. He invoked Rosa Parks—as did others—and opined that “Marion [Barry] should get up off the money” and fully fund the buses.
Under the “Balkanized” Metrobus funding formula, Metro can’t provide service for which D.C. won’t pay. That means that Metro’s proposed cutbacks, though high-handed and ill-considered, are ultimately the responsibility of the council. At the hearings, Ward 2 Councilmember and current Metro board chairman Jack Evans served as a lightning rod for much of the resentment. Evans tried to explain that he voted for full Metro funding, as did At-Large Councilmember Hilda Mason, who sat next to him during the hearings. Mayor Barry and Council Chairman Dave Clarke, Evans noted, were among those who voted to short Metrobus funding.
Neither Barry nor Clarke showed their faces, and thus weren’t targeted for much of the crowd’s abuse. Ward 8 resident Richard Miller suggested diverting to Metrobus some of the money for a proposed downtown sports arena, a pet Barry project, while upper Northwest’s Steven Posniak argued for defunding the “Dave Clarke School of Law” (the D.C. School of Law, which Clarke supports and where he once taught).
Evans instead took a lot of the heat, as testifiers expressed long-simmering resentments against the city’s affluent neighborhoods (some of which Evans represents) and Metrorail, which is seen as the transit agency’s focus and as a service principally for suburbanites. “I guarantee everyone,” vowed Ward 8 resident Mary Cuthbert, “that the subway stop in Georgetown [an Evans interest] will open before the station in [Ward 8’s] Congress Heights opens.”
Since the latter station is already designed and the former remains theoretical, that scenario’s extremely unlikely. Still, one frequent criticism did ring true: that both the councilmembers and Metro planners are out of touch with Metrobus and its riders. “I think you should take the schedules and take the maps and ride the buses,” counseled Georgetown resident Barbara Harrison. Or, as late-night worker Turner Richburg put it, “pretend your chauffeur didn’t show up one day” and take the bus instead.