DC Metro will brake for updates over next year
By Associated Press | May 6, 2016, 15:52 EST
WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington’s beleaguered subway system will endure a year of rolling shutdowns and slowdowns in an effort to catch up on maintenance and improve safety and reliability.
Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, said Friday that his plan calls for squeezing three years’ worth of maintenance into one year. He said Metro has fallen so far behind on maintenance that it’s impossible to catch up while only doing track work on weekends and at night while the system is closed.
His announcement comes three days after the National Transportation Safety Board blamed Metro’s poor maintenance and inadequate inspection practices for a track fire in 2015 that killed one passenger and sickened dozens more.
Metro is the nation’s second-busiest transit network, with more than 700,000 daily trips, but ridership has dipped in recent years as reliability has suffered. Wiedefeld said he expects ridership to decrease further over the next year, but he believes riders will return.
“They want the system back to where it is reliable and they want to be safe, and I think that will drive the numbers,” Wiedefeld said.
Here’s what to expect during Metro’s maintenance surge:
SLOWDOWNS AND SHUTDOWNS
The rolling closures will begin in June and continue through May 2017, according to Wiedefeld’s plan, which Metro’s board of directors is expected to approve. For days or weeks at a time, sections of track will either be closed entirely or trains in both directions will be sharing a single track, leading to major delays.
For example, for two weeks in July, stations on either side of Reagan National Airport will close, forcing air travelers to take shuttle buses in addition to trains. Starting in September, Metro will single-track trains for 42 days between the Vienna and Dunn Loring stations in northern Virginia, resulting in extremely crowded trains departing from one of the system’s busiest stations.
While many of the shutdowns will occur at suburban stations in Virginia and Maryland, the effects of the track work will reverberate throughout the system. For example, Metro says 94,000 weekday trips will be affected by seven days of single-tracking in August between the Takoma station in Washington and the Silver Spring station in Maryland.
WHY IT’S NEEDED
The past 16 months have been among the worst in Metro’s 40-year history, starting with the January 2015 electrical fire that led to the death of a passenger from respiratory failure due to smoke. Dozens of passengers were sickened as they waited more than 30 minutes in a choking atmosphere before firefighters arrived.
While there have been no further fatalities or injuries, Metro has endured a series of track fires since then because of power cables that were either damaged, poorly installed or missing components. After a fire in March that was similar to the one last year, Wiedefeld made the unprecedented decision to shut down the entire system for a day for emergency inspections and repairs.
Meanwhile, Metro went most of 2015 without a permanent general manager as its board debated whether to bring in a traditional transit executive or a turnaround specialist. Wiedefeld, who previously ran Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, took over in November. He’s been widely praised by the region’s elected officials for his management style and his honesty about the system’s problems.
OBAMA WEIGHS IN
President Barack Obama said Friday that the deteriorating state of Metro “is just one more example of the under-investments that have been made” in the nation’s infrastructure.
Obama said during a White House news conference that investing in infrastructure “is not and should not be partisan.” He says it’s an issue this year’s presidential candidates should address.
He says there are bridges, roads, airports and pipes around the country that are being neglected, and the problem is fixable.
“The Republican Congress has been resistant to really taking on this problem in a serious way,” Obama said. “The reason is because of an ideology that says government spending is necessarily bad.”
However, Republicans said during a hearing last month that Metro’s problems can be traced to poor management rather than a lack of funding. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, told Metro officials that they should not expect a bailout.
NO MORE LATE NIGHTS
Beginning in June, Metro will also stop offering late-night service on Fridays and Saturdays. The system will close at midnight, the same time it closes during the rest of the week. Wiedefeld said late-night ridership has already dropped considerably, making the decision easier. At times, Metro will also begin to wind down service immediately after rush hour, single-tracking starting at 8 p.m. every night.
NO BREAK ON FARES
Wiedefeld said fares will not be reduced during the maintenance blitz, which he said was designed to ensure that people who rely on public transit can still use it. When portions of track are closed, shuttle buses will be provided, and while trains will be less frequent and more crowded during single-tracking, the system will continue running.
“We’re maintaining transit in the entire system,” Wiedefeld said.
IMPACT ON TOURISM
Spring and fall are the city’s busiest times of year for tourism and conventions, and people visiting the city will be impacted by the Metro maintenance. Elliott Ferguson, the president of Destination DC, the city’s tourism bureau, said the good news is that his organization has time to share information with visitors about what to expect.
“It will be disruptive, but it’s not something that will make it impossible for visitors to still enjoy the city,” Ferguson said.
Written by Ben Nuckols