Metro says storm is a budget drain, but not crippling

March 3

Even in the digital age, with data flowing the world over at the click of a mouse, sometimes ink on paper, carried by hand from one place to another, is the only option.

So it was nasty outside. Big deal.

“What? This?” said Carol Buckland, scoffing at Monday’s winter punch. A Connecticut native, bundled up and headed out of Metro’s nearly empty Farragut West station, she viewed the frigid cold and whipping snow as a minor inconvenience.

“If I didn’t have to deliver this material to work, I’d have stayed home,” Buckland said, smiling as she held up a tote bag filled with documents.

Just off a Blue Line train from Crystal City, she was bound for the Communications Center on K Street NW, a company that teaches government and corporate clients how to deal with the news media. “I don’t mind a little snowy weather,” said Buckland, 61, trudging toward an escalator. “I’m a New Englander! This is nothing!”

Besides, with the federal government closed and tens of thousands of private-sector employees taking the day off, inclement weather in some ways makes commuting easier, at least on Metro trains, which had plenty of empty seats.

A week earlier, on a cold but precipitation-free Monday, subway passenger-trips totaled a quarter-million by 10 a.m., typical for a workday morning. This week, amid Monday’s snow, the total by 10 a.m. was just 30,981, Metro said.

Even though Metro suspended bus service until Tuesday because of slippery roads, the transit agency said it expected rail ridership to be relatively paltry in the evening rush hour, as well. For commuters such as Brian Seelagy, 26, an investment consultant, it meant ample elbow room on trains.

“It’s a personal choice,” Seelagy said of his decision to go to work. Waiting in the Courthouse station for an Orange Line train to Ballston, he stood in a cavernous space almost as quiet as a mausoleum, saying, “I don’t mind this at all.”

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said snow and a lot of days with sub-freezing temperatures this winter have been a financial drain on the transit agency, but not a dire one.

“In the context of a $1.6 billion operating budget, where contingencies are part of the process, we continue to be in a favorable” position, Stessel said.

Money to deal with weather-related service disruptions comes from Metro’s general operating budget. “The main expense for major snow events is labor,” he said. “We extend shifts to increase the number of maintenance workers. . . in a variety of departments,” including those handling bus and subway-car repairs and fixing broken tracks.

Another expense: “We have standing contracts for snow clearance at our major outlying stations,” Stessel said. Exacerbating the increase in costs is the drop in revenue, not only from reduced subway ridership but from the suspension of bus service for the second time this winter. Service was halted for much of Feb. 13 during a snowstorm.

MetroAccess, a door-to-door van service for people with disabilities, also was suspended Monday.

“We take a revenue hit when we shut down bus and/or parts of rail, or if ridership is low,” Stessel said. At the same time, “we don’t save much on the expense side because most of our costs, meaning labor, are fixed.”

“We save some on propulsion and fuel, but those costs are small compared to the additional overtime and other costs,” he said.

Caroline Laurin, a Metro spokeswoman, said there were a couple of instances of single-tracking in the subway system Monday as workers dealt with “some mechanical issues, a few trains here and there, but not a lot.”

Dahrain Ranganathan, 25, a student at George Washington University, had her own budget to worry about Monday. Unwrapping a scarf from around her face as she entered the Foggy Bottom station, she said, “I had no choice” but to brave the snow.

She had a doctor’s appointment that she couldn’t afford to miss. “The clinic was open,” Ranganathan said, on her way home to Virginia after her 8 a.m. appointment. “And there’s a $100 cancellation fee associated with it.”

A little past 9:30 a.m., only about two dozen people stood on Foggy Bottom’s normally crowded platforms. “My main worry was slipping and falling on the ice, but I made it,” said Ranganathan. “And I always have my scarf.”

Dai Crisp, 58, and Chad Vargas, 39, vineyard operators from Oregon, are here for industry-related meetings on Capitol Hill that were postponed Monday. Riding an almost vacant Orange Line train, they were planning a walking tour of the Mall instead.

“We’re going to see the monuments, try to see what they look like in the snow,” Crisp said. Just the thought of it seemed to make Vargas shiver. “We’d rather be indoors, but all the museums are closed,” he said.

“We’ll stay out until we get too cold,” Crisp said. “Then I guess we’ll have to find something else to do.”

paul.duggan@washpost.com

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