Everywhere you look, Metro seems to be busy rebuilding the subway system. That is, if you can see much of anything. As Metro spends billions to repair escalators and elevators and upgrade miles and miles of track, some riders and rider advocates say the transit system is continuing to neglect an even more basic need: light.
For years, many of Metrorail’s stations have been plagued by dim — even dark — pockets, yet better lighting has remained a low priority. Riders complain that stations are too dimly lighted to read a newspaper or even make out an escalator step. Wheelchair users and the visually impaired say navigating the system is even more difficult when the stations are too dark.
Farragut North — one of the busiest stations in the system— has gained a reputation as one of the darkest in town. “I call it the cave,” Metro board member Tom Bulger said at a recent board meeting.
To focus attention on the problem, a group of rider advocates has inspected nearly 70 percent of Metro’s stations and has confirmed what riders already knew.
“We have found that this is a very severe problem, and it impacts everyone in the low-vision community as well as the general public,” said Barbara Milleville, president of the National Capital Citizens With Low Vision.
Milleville, who has limited vision, worked with members of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee to audit the stations. They plan to present their findings and recommendations to the Metro board this month and will urge the agency to incorporate the lighting needs into next year’s budget.
“In the past, lighting was not a priority, and we are trying to say it needs to become a priority,” Milleville said.
Over the past few years, Metro has had a lot on its plate. From catching up on long-delayed maintenance to making rail travel safer after the deadly Red Line crash in 2009 , the transit system has been running a system and rebuilding it all at once.
Advocates acknowledge those needs but say they don’t want lighting to, yet again, take a back seat to higher-profile needs.
It is a fundamental challenge facing Metro: how to carry out the work required to make the system safe and viable for the 21st century while ensuring reliable, comfortable service to the passengers of today.
A commuter heading home after a long day might want to read a book without having to canvass the platform for the rare spot with good light. A disabled rider with few options besides public transit might fret about navigating the inherent hazards of a subway station when the lighting is lacking.
Lighting problems in Metro are complicated by the distinctive architecture of the system, which opened in 1976.
Designers wanted soft, indirect light that would highlight the cathedral-like arches of the underground stations. And, indeed, images of the system are known by subway aficionados around the world.
But that has made enhancing lighting a tricky endeavor.
“In a sense, [the architects] wanted to create a kind of ambiance that gave you a feeling that you were underground and in a place that had a bit of mystery to it,” said Roger K. Lewis, an architect and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.
“It is quite difficult to remedy or fix the problem without destroying the original idea that goes back with the design. It takes a lot of careful analysis to do it right.”
And then there is Metro’s lax maintenance of the existing lighting, with dead bulbs common among the 300,000 fixtures at all of Metro’s facilities.
Improving lighting comes down to money, especially with budgets tight, said Lewis, who years ago was a consultant to Metro in a lighting design study.
Despite such studies and some improvements, many stations have uneven levels of lighting that make it difficult for riders inside the trains even to spot the station names on the walls along the tracks.
Some riders also worry that the poorly lighted platforms combined with ongoing construction at several stations create an unsafe environment.
“It can be dangerous when people are running to catch the train,” said John Federico, a Bethesda resident with partial sight who recently tripped into a construction cone inside Farragut North.
“When the lighting is inconsistent, it is difficult to maneuver,” he said. “Everybody can benefit from consistent lighting. You don’t want people tripping.”
Katrina Chavers, a daily Metro user who travels between the Shady Grove and Smithsonian Metro stations, agreed that lighting is often lacking. “It would be great to have some improvements,” she said.
Any significant enhancements, however, would be costly to the system that is now in the middle of a $5 billion reconstruction that focuses on safety and performance.
The Accessibility Advisory Committee says better lighting is needed on platforms, in the walls along tracks, and around the elevators, escalators and kiosks.
Improvements at about 40 stations noted in the group’s report could cost nearly $25 million, according to estimates from Metro engineers. Improved lighting at Farragut North alone is estimated at $550,000.
Metro officials say they welcome the committee’s recommendations and say efforts to improve and maintain the lighting are ongoing. The agency has a pilot program at Judiciary Square where extra lights were installed at the F Street entrance mezzanine.
Six years ago, Metro’s leadership said crews would replace burned-out bulbs within 10 days instead of three months and would do a total replacement and inspection of station lights every 10 months.
Metro would not say whether that policy is being followed. But agency spokeswoman Caroline Lukas said Metro has a preventive maintenance schedule for light bulb replacement and that staff workers change out single bulbs when outages are reported.
“If a customer reports a burned-out bulb, we make every effort to replace it as soon as possible,” she said, adding that some lights are in difficult locations that can affect the replacement time.
Some lighting advocates, however, say the level of maintenance remains a top concern.
“We are having a difficult time really finding out how often the light bulbs are supposed to be checked,” said Marilyn Lutter, a member of the Accessibility Advisory Committee and head of the group that inspected the stations. The group counted numerous light bulbs out. Last month, for example, 69 dead bulbs were recorded at West Falls Church.
“We wouldn’t be finding burned-out light bulbs if indeed the light bulbs were monitored regularly,” Lutter said.
“There needs to be a clear policy that is very much enforced.”
Metro officials say the agency has been moving toward more energy-efficient fixtures to reduce power costs and increase illumination.
“With the size of our system, this isn’t a quick change,” Senior Planner Allison Davis wrote on the agency’s online discussion board, where riders submit ideas for improvements.
Metro board members say they look forward to discussions about how to make the system brighter.
“I think our standards were set on another era when there was not necessarily the same sensitivity about the environment or those with diminished vision capacity,” Metro board member Tom Downs said at a recent board meeting.
The board, he said, welcomes the recommendations and is “anxious to pursue this in a way that it is constructive for all of the riders of the system.”