Metro’s ‘pivot toward the future’

March 30

The part of Metro’s annual multibillion-dollar spending plan that draws the most scrutiny from commuters — its operating budget, including rail and bus fares — is settled for the next fiscal year. The cost of a ride is going up. Now the agency’s board of directors will start focusing on a different type of spending — the new budget for capital improvements, meaning major, long-term upgrades to the transit network.

The decision-making process on investments in infrastructure typically attracts a lot less public attention than a debate over fare hikes. Yet the proposed $1.14 billion plan that board members are about to begin considering would do more to shape the transit system’s future than any capital budget in years, officials said.

“We’ve reached a turning point,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. After working to resurrect the system from disrepair — a problem that General Manager Richard Sarles has blamed on neglect by previous Metro administrations — the agency is ready to “make a downpayment” on improvements it plans to complete in the next decade or so.

“Until now, we’ve been singularly focused on bringing the system back to health, to a state of good repair, and that effort will continue,” Stessel said. “But you’re also going to see a pivot toward the future, to getting the system on a footing where it can meet the region’s needs as population and ridership grows in the years to come.”

Metro’s operating budget for the fiscal year starting in July, which was approved Thursday, totals more than $1.7 billion, with the spending to be financed partly by fare revenue. The board voted to increase rail fares by an average of 3 percent and set a flat $1.75 fare for bus rides, regardless of whether a rider uses cash or a SmarTrip card.

The capital budget, which is likely to be finalized by the board in April or May, would be financed significantly with federal money, along with $156 million from the District government and $81 million each from the governments of Maryland and Virginia.

It also seeks county contributions totaling $34 million from Montgomery County, $30 million from Fairfax County, $36 million from Prince George’s County and $15 million from Arlington County. Alexandria would pay $9 million, and Falls Church and Fairfax City would add $1 million each.

From that pool of money, Metro plans to invest more than $400 million in the rail system in the next fiscal year, including by exercising purchase options on a new generation of subway cars called the 7000 series. The agency plans to eventually buy 748 of the new cars, while retiring some older cars that date to the opening of Metro in 1976. By 2018, the agency said, 7000-series cars will constitute half the rail fleet.

The manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail Car, in Lincoln, Neb., already has delivered four of the cars, which are being tested on Metro’s rails. With digital information displays and an array of safety and comfort features lacking in the current rail fleet, the new cars are so different from those currently in service that the 7000- series vehicles will be kept together as separate trains, apart from the older cars now being used.

The agency intends to spend about $2 billion in coming years to buy the 748 new cars.

Stessel said some of the $400 million-plus earmarked for the rail system in the next capital budget will be spent on moving Metro closer to its goal of running only eight-car trains, doing away with six-car trains. That process involves not only upgrading the quality of its cars, but also boosting the underground transit network’s electrical power capacity, Stessel said. The capital budget also sets aside money for that work.

It also includes $53 million to replace or overhaul escalators and elevators in subway stations; $11 million for improvements to MetroAccess, the van service for people with disabilities who aren’t able to ride buses or trains; and $24 million to be spent in the next fiscal year in the long-term process of modernizing Metro’s fare-collection system.

“And there’s the start of design work for station improvements,” Stessel said, referring to Metro’s plan for eventual major renovations to the underground Union Station, L’Enfant Plaza and Gallery Place-Chinatown stations in the core of the city.

At L’Enfant Plaza, an intersection of the Orange-Blue and Green-Yellow lines; at Gallery Place-Chinatown, where the Green-Yellow and Red lines meet; and at Union Station, where waves of arriving Amtrak and commuter rail passengers board Red line trains, the platforms and walkways are too small for the crowds they have to accommodate, Stessel said. Metro plans to expand them significantly in the years ahead.

The capital budget for the next fiscal year also includes more than $200 million for improvements in the bus system, including work on expanding Metro’s “priority corridor network,” in which traffic lanes on some routes are reserved for buses only, a way of making the service faster and more efficient. There are about two dozen such corridors set up now, and the transit agency plans to develop additional ones.

Meanwhile, Metro remains immersed in the work of reviving the transit system from what Sarles contends was years of neglect before he became the agency’s top manager in April 2010. That includes revamping the rail network’s track-based train monitoring system, which failed catastrophically in June 2009, causing one Red Line train to slam into another near the Fort Totten station, killing nine people.

Stessel said Metro will continue to spend capital-improvement money on that massive job in the next fiscal year, although completion of the project is a long way off. When it is done, the rail network will return to what’s called “automatic train operation.”

Since automatic operation was suspended after the 2009 crash, train operators have been driving the trains. Under automatic operation, computers are in charge, while train operators do little more than make announcements and open and close doors.

A computer can drive a train at optimal speeds, which minimizes power costs, and it can keep a train at precisely the prescribed distance from the train ahead of it, while braking and accelerating smoothly, giving passengers a gentler ride. Human train operators, on the other hand, are, after all, human. They tend to drive in different ways, slowing down too abruptly or speeding up to rapidly, jostling the folks on board.

“These are steady, gradual infrastructure improvements,” Stessel said of the capital-budget work planned for the fiscal year beginning in July. Yet in a series of public hearings several weeks ago on Metro’s overall proposed spending plan of nearly $2.9 billion — including both the operating and capital-improvement budgets — transit customers showed up mainly to comment on the operating budget, specifically the fare increases.

Thursday, the board approved a new fare structure that Metro officials said will increase the cost of a typical subway ride by 10 cents, to $3. While bus riders who use SmarTrip cards will see their fares rise by 15 cents, bus riders who pay the current cash fare of $1.80 will save a nickel per trip when the flat fare of $1.75 takes effect.

“Obviously that’s what people are most concerned with,” Stessel said.

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