Bethesda Metro station to get new escalators

The often-broken entrance escalators at Bethesda Metro station will be replaced with new ones, Metro said Wednesday, but it won’t happen for three years.

“We can’t keep doing band-aid repairs and hope they will last,” General Manager Richard Sarles said in a statement.

Metro’s schedule calls for starting work to replace the three Bethesda entrance escalators in early 2014. Sarles said he has asked his staff to determine whether the project can be accelerated.

The transit authority plans to spend more than $150 million during the next five to six years to rehabilitate and replace escalators and elevators. Many of the system’s 588 escalators are old and poorly maintained. On Wednesday, Metro’s Web site said 111 escalators were “under repair.”

Under the long-term plan, 31 elevators and 144 escalators will be rehabbed. Only 12 escalators, including the ones at Bethesda, will be replaced. Officials have said widespread replacements — about $2 million a unit, depending on the length — are out of reach for the system, which has substantial capital needs.

Bethesda is one of the system’s busiest stops, and its escalators have become notorious for not working. In 1998, a Metro rider died of a heart attack after he climbed a stopped 106-foot escalator there during a heat wave.

Riders at Bethesda on Wednesday afternoon were relieved that new escalators are coming but frustrated that it won’t be soon.

“That’s three years of continuing unreliability,” said Perry Bird, who rides the Red Line on weekdays from Dupont Circle to his job at a nonprofit in Bethesda.

“They’re down a couple of times a month, and half the people can’t walk up them,” said Sandi Poole, who commutes from Rockville.

Bird was surprised the escalators had not been replaced earlier.

“Over the years, I’ve seen signs saying work is being done on them,” he said. “You make the assumption that they’ve been replaced. I’m surprised they haven’t been. It’s definitely about time.”

Broken escalators are a perennial frustration for Metro riders, and fixing them is one of Metro’s most vexing problems. The transit agency has gone back and forth over the years, contracting out some of the work and bringing in consultants to analyze the problem, all without finding a lasting solution.

Metro has more escalators than any other transit system in the country. Many of them are old and have not been properly maintained; parts can be difficult to find because four of seven manufacturers have gone out of business.

Metro’s escalator and elevator division has also suffered major management problems. In 1997, an investigation revealed that escalator maintenance records had been falsified. Nine escalator supervisors and top managers at the agency were fired, demoted or suspended.

Now Metro has an in-house apprenticeship program that trains escalator and elevator mechanics in doing daily repairs and maintenance. The major overhaul and replacement work is mostly done by contractors, officials said.

But that formula hasn’t worked either. Last year, a consultant found that Metro was not adhering to its own maintenance standards. After an escalator incident injured six people at L’Enfant Plaza, Metro launched a systemwide inspection that led to multiple emergency repairs.

The other stations getting new escalators include the south entrance at Dupont Circle, Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. This month, Metro unveiled the first of three new escalators at Foggy Bottom, the first time in more than a decade that Metro has installed a new escalator in an existing station.

Roland H. Jeter, first vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, the union that represents most Metro employees, said there is “no magic wand.”

“You’d have to have someone working on [the escalators] 24/7 to satisfy the public demand of not having one of them down,” he said.

I'm a Washington Post reporter, working an early morning shift that deals with crime, lottery winners, traffic, you name it.
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