Post MetroGirl Dana Hedgpeth and I got a lot of questions and comments from transit riders in response to our request for them before the Hangout with Metro General Manager Richard Sarles on Tuesday — way many more than we could ask him during the Webcast.
I’ve got a few more questions and comments here that I’ll try to address based on interviews with Sarles and other Metro officials.
Escalator repairs: Why does it take so much time to repair or replace escalators inside and outside of the Metrorail stations? Does Metro do rail maintenance during off hours on weekends? Can they do their maintenance between midnight and 6 a.m. so it won’t effect rail service?
DG: Metro does maintenance around the clock, seven days a week. Weekend riders are all too familiar with the scheduling of maintenance — even to the point of closing stations, as will happen this weekend.
Over the past year, the maintenance program for tracks, trains, escalators and elevators has gotten more aggressive. Many stations look like construction zones. Riders are understandably frustrated when they pass the same torn-up site every day and don’t see anyone working.
Metro officials say one reason is that they sometimes avoid scheduling work in a station area where there will be a lot of riders around. It just isn’t safe, they say, so the workers come in during the overnight hours when the stations are closed, or during those weekend shutdowns.
One of the things I like best in the budget Sarles is presenting to the Metro board this week is the plan to replace 94 escalators. Replacement escalators are quite rare. Metro normally waits till an escalator reaches a certain age, then rehabilitates it, and allows it to advance to it’s full life expectancy.
Sarles says that as managers have gained more experience with the cranky machinery, they’ve decided that in many cases it would make sense to get it over with and install new equipment. The downside is that the capital budget I’m referring to goes to 2018. But if we live long enough, we’re going to see a lot of new escalators under this plan.
Metro board: It seems that in many large organizations the board plays a significant role in long-term planning and capital projects/maintenance. How involved is the Metro board in such decisions, and how long have most members been on the board?
DG: The board has gone through a tremendous turnover during the past year. Few of the current board members were around for the last fare increase in 2010, and few have had the chance as yet to participate in much long-term planning.
There is a lot of talent on Metro’s board, but also a lot of uncertainty about how deeply involved board members should be in decision-making and how much they should defer to the general manager.
Board members aren’t elected to those jobs, and they aren’t directly responsible to the public in general or the riders in particular. They were sent there to represent the interests of the jurisdictions that finance Metro.
The board has a Riders’s Advisory Council with many dedicated volunteers, but appointments are subject to the board’s approval.
Reduced subsidy: How will the reduction of the monthly allowance for the federal pre-tax benefit from $230 to $125 per month on Jan. 1 affect WMATA’s ridership and its future fare policies? A fare increase combined with a loss in the benefit means a double hit for many commuters.
DG: Sarles and Carol Kissal, Metro’s chief financial officer, said the reduction in the federal transit benefit had no effect on the budget proposal or on Metro’s ridership projections. Sarles said he remains hopeful that Congress will again raise the transit benefit, so that it’s comparable with the benefit for parking.
Parking fees: Regarding parking at Metro lots, why can’t users who don’t ride trains pay a graduated charge based on time in the garage?
DG: Metro shouldn’t be in the parking business in the first place. The transit authority, the largest provider of parking in the D.C. region, should be focused on providing transit rides. That job clearly is tough enough.
Metro is in the parking business to provide itself with customers, commuters who drive to the stations and park there all day while they are at work. The current system was designed to be as simple and inexpensive as possible for Metro to operate. It was created when the transit authority eliminated the staffed booths at the exits, following a scandal over disappearing receipts.
Automatic train control: When do you expect to operate the system under automatic train control and what, if any, new real time technology as National Transportation Safety Board suggested, will be installed to mitigate the possibility of another 2009 accident?
DG: Sarles said Metro has no specific timetable for this. The transit authority is continuing with the replacement of the track circuitry in compliance with the NTSB recommendations. The new system will be the subject of a safety review and testing, before the go-ahead is given for the return to automatic control.
Sarles said that it might be possible to restore automatic control on the Red Line before the other lines, because the Red Line is the one that doesn’t overlap service with other lines. But he made no commitment to that or to dates.
[I have some more of your questions and comments for a follow-up posting.]