Commuters face midday rush hour as federal workers head home due to shutdown


Commuters exit the L'Enfant Plaza metro station where on a regular day, hundreds of people would enter and exit this station. Tuesday, this station and others like it will see fewer commuters due to the government shutdown. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

Washington-area traffic watchers and transit systems faced a midday rush hour Tuesday, as federal workers headed home early due to the shutdown.

Some transit agencies added longer trains and extra buses, while others said they lacked the flexibility to do so.

Metro said it was not adding extra trains or increasing the frequency of trains at midday, but said it might run some longer, eight-car trains depending on ridership demand, according to Metro spokesman Dan Stessel.

“Ridership is down slightly compared to last Tuesday, and we believe midday service levels and train length is adequate to support expected ridership,” Stessel said. “We have the ability to make adjustments if necessary.”

Trains in the core of Metro’s rail system run every six minutes at midday and every three minutes during rush hours.

Stessel said Metro would monitor the situation“and take appropriate action.” If more trains are needed, he said, “we have the ability” to add those.

Tuesday morning’s commute on area roads was typical, as federal workers headed to offices to secure work stations and wrap up e-mail, according to a regional traffic monitoring system.

“Our biggest concern is after noon,” said Valerie Weeks, an operator for the Metropolitan Area Transportation Operations Coordination (MATOC) program, as she monitored traffic cameras and Web sites from her College Park office.

An extended afternoon rush period started around noon and Weeks said there might be a slight lull between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., before private employers let out as usual starting around 4 p.m.

Air travel continued without interruption Tuesday as more than 14,000 air traffic controllers were ordered to remain on the job without pay. But their union warned that the furlough of 3,000 support personnel would have longterm implications for aviation if the congressional deadlock persists.

“It is unacceptable that thousands of our aviation safety professionals have been forced to stay home due to partisan posturing in Congress,” said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Rinaldi said thousands of FAA projects would be delayed if much of the agency’s workforce continues to be furloughed. In addition to 3,000 members of his union, more than 12,000 other FAA employees have been furloughed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Some of the biggest impacts Tuesday afternoon were expected to be felt at Metro stations, particularly those in the suburbs that serve as bus hubs. Some suburban bus systems, such as Montgomery’s Ride-On service, planned to stick to regular midday schedules, when buses run less frequently than during the morning and afternoon rush.

At Metro Center and Gallery Place — two busy transfer stations —there were no crowds waiting to board trains, but there more riders than a typical midday as federal workers headed home.

On one Red Line train to Glenmont, two women who worked at the Department of Health and Human services boarded a train where half of the seats were occupied. Some workers took off their badges and put them in their bags.

“This is the rush hour time now,” said one of them at 12:15 pm. She would not give her name because she said she works in a sensitive administrative job for the agency and wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. “By 2 p.m. there won’t be anybody. It’s going to be empty later,” she said of Metro trains.

Her friend, Denise Carver, who also works for Health and Human Services, said she was headed to her Brookland home and planned to do chores like cleaning out closets as she waits for word on when to come back to work in the agency’s civil rights office.

“Even if you have savings this is going to impact you,” she said. “It’s going to impact Metro and restaurants and grocery stores. This is a federal town and we spend money. If you don’t know when your next paycheck is coming you are not going to spend money.”

Jennifer Moats, an economist at the Commerce Department, planned to take a Green Line train to Greenbelt and then drive home to Columbia. “It looks like everybody’s going home,” she said.

She took Metro on Tuesday because she didn’t want to wait for the 4 p.m. commuter bus that she usually takes.

At the Smithsonian Station, with museums closed, only a few people waited at the station platform Tuesday afternoon. Most of them were frustrated tourists asking if anyone knew when the museums would re-open.

Ivan Fonseca, and his wife, Hilda Hurtado, visiting from San Jose, Costa Rica with their two young sons, were trying to find a place to go. It was only after they showed up at the Air and Space Museum on Tuesday morning did they discover that all the museums were closed.

“We have not been able to enter any museum,” said Fonseca, still unsure why. “This is terrible. What else can we do now?”

Metro workers at Smithsonian were fielding questions from tourists about why the museums were closed, what else was open to visit, and what station would take them to the nearest shopping mall or Georgetown.

“So what else can we do?” asked Hurtado talking to another tourist, Janet Linares, visiting from Mexico.

At L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, the platform was a little busier than usual early Tuesday afternoon with many federal workers headed home.

“It is a lot more people now than usual,” said Cory Grant, a D.C. government employee waiting for a Green Line train at L’Enfant. “This is ridiculous. I don’t understand what they are trying to do. They need workers to keep things running.”

A financial analyst at the Pentagon waiting for an Orange train said she came in to work for four hours and was told to stay tuned for news about when to go back to work.

Her commute Tuesday morning was easy with lighter traffic from her home in Baltimore to the New Carrollton Metro.

“Nothing makes sense anymore,” she said. “I think we are all a little depressed.”

But by 2 p.m. the early afternoon rush appeared to be humming along for many transit riders, without significant problems.

Bus shelters near the Silver Spring Metrorail station were mostly empty, as train riders easily fit onto waiting buses. Metro riders getting off at Silver Spring said the system was busy, but not overly crowded.

That might be because the afternoon commute for some federal workers began Tuesday morning. A furloughed staffer leaving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said only about 50 people out of 900 or so remained in NOAA’s Silver Spring offices by 1 p.m. Most people headed home in the morning, he said, shortly after checking in.

Alexandria’s DASH service was running extra buses to and from the Pentagon and the Mark Center station to handle the early rush hour, while Prince William County’s OmniRide also planned to run some extra buses. The Fairfax Connector began running extra buses at 1 p.m., officials said.

Prince George’s bus service, The Bus, was operating on a normal schedule.

Byran McReynolds, acting associate director for the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation, said The Bus is keeping the same schedule, but added, “We are prepared to add buses if necessary.”

Commuters who depend on Maryland’s MARC system were told they might find longer trains to accommodate the early rush, a spokesman said. The Brunswick Line added a train leaving Union Station at 2 p.m. making all stops to Martinsburg. However, the P875 train, which usually leaves Union Station at 4:25 p.m., will be canceled.

A special midday train also operated on the Camden Line, leaving Union Station at 2:15 p.m. and making all stops to Camden. Train P850, which usually leaves Union Station at 5:22 p.m., will be canceled.

Train P852, which leaves Union Station at 5:53 p.m., will make “flag stops” at stations usually covered by P850, a spokesman said. At those stations — Riverdale, College Park, Greenbelt, Jessup and St. Denis — trains will stop if anyone on board has bought a ticket for those stops. Otherwise, trains will only slow down. If the engineer doesn’t spot anyone, the train will pass through without stopping.

Commuter trains to Northern Virginia were longer than usual to accommodate the earlier rush, but there were no additional trains, a spokesman said.

Virginia Railway Express officials said they were operating eight-car trains on the Fredericksburg line’s Train 301 and the Manassas Line’s Train 325. Trains 303 and 327 also will have longer trains than usual, said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber. Eight-car trains have 1,200 to 1,300 seats, he said.

Roeber said VRE couldn’t add more trains because of operating agreements with CSX, Amtrak and Norfolk Southern that limit VRE trains to the current schedule. Other rail companies use the tracks midday, he said.

“Based on our available time slots, we’re doing what we can to increase capacity,” Roeber said.

Roeber said VRE expects to be able to accommodate all passengers with the longer regularly scheduled midday trains, but said crowding could become a problem by the time the trains reach Alexandria.

About 65 percent of VRE passengers are federal workers, Roeber said.

He said VRE plans to have full service on Wednesday but will make a final announcement around 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Stessel, of Metro, said the agency was “going to hold off speculation” on the revenue and ridership impact the federal shutdown will have on the transit agency. Metrorail carries about 750,000 rider trips on an average weekday. At rush hour, Metrorail has about 200,000 rider trips – of those 40 percent are federal workers, Metro said.

“There are some federal workers who are exempted who are still riding,” Stessel said. “We’ll have a better sense in the next 24 to 48 hours” of the impact on ridership.

Metro has said riders could see fewer eight-car trains as they would not need as many given there will be fewer people riding at rush hour times as the shutdown continues.

Post staff writers Luz Lazo, Mark Berman and Ashley Halsey contributed to this report.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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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