Token Ridership

Metrobus is Dade's most effective public transportation. But when it comes to funding, the bus system and its patrons always get taken for a ride.

Conceding that there are "some bad apples," Roosevelt Bradley says he is instituting more training in customer relations and in the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But he and other upper-level managers say behavior is much better than it has been in the past.

Good things, too, have been known to happen. Richard Roberts remembers especially clearly an attractive hospital worker who used to regularly ride his bus home. They're now married.

Bus supporters have some cause to rejoice -- or at least to be cautiously optimistic. The state is nearing completion of an eight-mile busway that will run along South Dixie Highway from Cutler Ridge to Kendall Drive. (Cost: $6 million per mile, versus Metrorail's cost of $57 million per mile.) Transit officials hope to extend that busway all the way down to Florida City within a few years. Plans are also afoot to develop routes for smaller buses to circulate through neighborhoods and feed the major arteries and the rail, a project designed to challenge jitneys, privately owned vans that have cropped up in recent years to fill the holes in the bus system. (According to MDTA, jitneys have sucked an estimated six million dollars per year in revenues away from the county.)

In another recent development that may reflect a change in transit prejudices, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a county transportation board composed mainly of Metro commissioners, recently authorized a thorough review of Tri-Rail. The vote was requested by members of an appointed citizens' advisory group that wondered whether the rail should be left as is, modified, or eliminated. The group pointed out that while Tri-Rail staff has doubled, ridership has dropped. Weekday riders have decreased from about 8500 (February 1995) to about 7000 (February 1996). Fare revenue is only about $5.4 million, a fraction of the $70 million annual subsidy. By the group's calculations, Tri-Rail is being subsidized to the annual tune of more than $17,500 per passenger. (Most of the operational cost of the Tri-Rail is provided by the state; Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties kick in about one million dollars each.) In outlining their concerns, the citizens' group asked whether an express-bus service could better serve the commuting population.

Making reference to the vote to review Tri-Rail, Metro Commissioner Alex Penelas says he'd like to review the entire transit system, with an eye toward perhaps turning over Metrorail to a private contractor.

Among MDTA bus personnel, a modicum of hopefulness has been brought about by a recent change in administration. This past January, when Ed Colby appointed Roosevelt Bradley as assistant director of bus operations, he also tapped Bradley's boss, Carlos Bonzon, for the post of deputy director of bus and train operations. While neither has been in the job long enough to prove his worth, management's traditional adversaries are hopeful. Union president Eddie Talley says Bradley has already presented some "creative and innovative plans" for improving the system. As for Bonzon, who is the former director of Dade's Building and Zoning Department, Talley says, "He strikes me as someone who has a genuine interest in the bus part and the whole industry."

A ten-year veteran of the transit system, Bradley recognizes he's walking into a potential snake pit. ("I don't think an assistant director of bus has ever survived," notes Colby, the man who appointed him.) It doesn't help Bradley that he had never worked in bus operations: Aside from a year-long stint with Metrobus on special assignment, he spent his decade of service on the rail side. That fact frustrates some of his staffers. "We're going through another education process educating our boss," sighs a frustrated Vernon Clarke, general superintendent of bus operations and a 30-year veteran of the bus system. "It's not the first time."

Bradley is trying to make his mark early: In May he produced a comprehensive 90-day report detailing the ills of the system, ranging from poor communication between management and the labor unions to roach infestation as a result of irregular exterminations. "I'm basically trying to hold people more accountable for their responsibilities," he declares.

He faces a trial by fire, literally. Summer is here, and with it comes an increase in bus breakdowns. Bradlely has been devising a plan to deal with the problem. "You know the saying, the proof is in the pudding?" asks Talley. "We will be into the pudding by June, and we will see what Mr. Bradley and Dr. Bonzon are made of."

Right now they don't have much to work with. MDTA has 77 buses on order from the Flxible bus company, but the firm is in dire financial straits and has stopped manufacturing new vehicles. Regardless, those buses were meant to replace the oldest ones in the county's fleet, which date back to 1980. Under federal guidelines, they are overdue for the junk pile.

Ancient buses mean even more breakdowns. This past year, Metrobus suffered 10,344 breakdowns ("roadcalls," in bus parlance, which could mean anything from engine failure to a malfunctioning rearview mirror) A an average of about 28 per day. According to an MDTA review of six U.S. metro areas (Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Dade) the county's buses broke down more frequently than every other fleet except Pittsburgh's.

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