Staff Editorial: Penny-pinching cuts to Metrobus service would harm region

A 96 Metrobus heads south on Wisconsin Avenue NW near the Tenleytown Metro station. (Brian Kapur/The Current/September 2017)

Compared to its peers across the country, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority provides “more buses and more trains running more hours on more routes,” according to a report by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

We’d consider this finding to be a point of pride — an appropriate and laudable emphasis on the importance of public transportation. Comprehensive bus and subway access provides the District with the means for people to get around without a car, which reduces traffic, benefits the environment and provides an option for low-income residents.

But to Mr. LaHood, this finding leads to a conclusion that Metro is overspending and needs to reduce its service. In particular, he called for a “major reset” on Metrobus that would involve scaling back service and raising fares by 5 percent.

We don’t disagree with Mr. LaHood that there might be inefficiencies in some Metrobus routes. There could be areas with redundant service, or locations that don’t really need a bus line. Moreover, Metrobus’ daunting maze of routes and schedules can intimidate a novice rider — illustrating the value of simplification in some cases. And it’s also worth considering innovative alternatives such as a shuttle service or taxi subsidies in locations where people depend on transit access but don’t reliably fill a bus.

However, we cannot accept the overwhelmingly dollars-and-cents approach to mass transit found in the LaHood report. We depend on Metro to move people efficiently through a crowded, congested city. And buses in particular are a vital lifeline to residents who are cut off from Metrorail or who depend on inexpensive transit service.

Furthermore, Mr. LaHood appears to assume that Metro isn’t already constantly evaluating and re-evaluating its bus service. The agency frequently makes adjustments — some of which we agree are appropriate, others of which we consider ill-advised, and nearly all of which generate some degree of outcry from affected riders.

We are open to Mr. LaHood’s recommendation that bus fares increase from $2 to $2.10. However, fare increases should not come in conjunction with budget-related cutbacks. As the report notes, Metro needs more regional and federal support for its buses and subways — but service reductions simply reduce ridership. When usage declines, bean counters like Mr. LaHood simply argue for further cuts. That’s not a path toward securing increased Metro subsidies from reluctant jurisdictions.

We don’t insist that the status quo is perfect, but changes shouldn’t merely target short-term financial savings. Properly framed and vetted, an examination of the District’s bus routes — some of which stem from long-defunct streetcar lines — to ensure a system that accounts for shifts and growth in population would indeed be welcome.