Jonetta Rose Barras: Circulating the Circulator

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Local,DC,Transportation,Jonetta Rose Barras,D.C. Council,Jim Graham,Jack Evans

Call it the little red and gray bus that could. Launched in 2005, the Circulator had been designed mostly to get riders from one tourist attraction, entertainment center or retail hot spot to another. Inexpensive, reliable and clean, the Circulator has become so popular it seems every D.C. Council member, particularly those representing a ward, wants one.

A few years ago, while chairman of the transportation committee, Ward 1's Jim Graham pushed for a new line. It now runs from Woodley Park to McPherson Square, through Columbia Heights and parts of Adams Morgan -- mostly his ward.

Now, Ward 3's Mary Cheh, current chairwoman of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, has proposed creating new lines while expanding existing ones. For example, the Union Station to Georgetown line would extend to National Cathedral in Ward 3. The changes could cost as much as $3 million, according to draft council documents.

Money may not be an issue. But the process deserves attention.

"The Circulator was not set up to be a citywide bus system," Ward 2's Jack Evans said earlier this week during discussions about the proposed 2014 budget and possible public policy changes.

"If this is the direction we want to go, we need to go in with our eyes open," continued Evans.

"I hate the word 'study.' But I think we need to do an analysis."

I love riding the bus. The subway is way too fast and underground, hindering my appreciation of the District's neighborhoods, the variety of which suggests multiple cities within a city.

Several years ago I urged the city to create its own bus system. Montgomery County has its Ride On system; why shouldn't the District get in on the fun?

District taxpayers will provide Metro with a $200 million subsidy in 2014. For what?

The rail system misses large sections of the city -- my neighborhood included. Bus fares have increased without significant improvements in service. Let's not mention the plethora of surly drivers.

The District government has never owned or fully operated a transit system. Before WMATA's arrival, D.C. bus service was provided by DC Transit, owned by O. Roy Chalk, who helped put Marion Barry on the map.

In 1966, Chalk proposed a rate increase. Barry was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a key civil rights group. He had come to the District to open a chapter. He staged a one-day protest against a fare hike on the Benning Road line. A few days later, the transit commission denied Chalk's requested increase. In 1973, Metro bought Chalk's company -- reportedly for $38 million.

District officials have come a long way since then. If the past seven years are any indication, the Department of Transportation has done a fairly good job managing the Circulator.

Is it ready for additional responsibilities?

"I think what makes a lot of sense is integrating all these systems [streetcar, bus, subway] and having a transportation authority," said Cheh.

But not before a financial and capacity analysis has been conducted.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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