Metro’s rebuilding effort creates headaches for weekend riders
By Dana Hedgpeth,
Metro has been shutting down major portions of its five lines and some stations nearly every weekend for more than two years, part of a $5 billion effort to fix the deteriorating rail system. But the rebuilding program has left the system’s riders — who take an average of 566,000 trips each weekend — frustrated as they face complex routes and endure long waits for trains.
On most weekends, train riders must get off a subway line, board a Metrobus that shuttles them between closed rail stations and then get back on a train to get to their destinations. Some lines have 20-minute delays as trains share a track so crews can do a variety of work, including pulling out old sections of rail, installing new ones, fixing fasteners and replacing wooden crossties.
Waiters, cooks, security guards and retail clerks scramble to make it to work on time, having to factor in as much as an extra hour to traverse the region. Shoppers opt to go by car. And trains sometimes come so infrequently that tourists end up confused.
“It’s inconvenient. It’s terrible,” said Shane Mallory of Southeast Washington as she tried to get to her mother’s house on trains and buses Saturday morning with her two nephews. “We pay more and more, and it seems like the system is never fixed. There’s always something going on.”
On Thursday, the finance committee of Metro’s board of directors is expected to discuss the weekend shutdowns and their impact on riders and the transit agency’s coffers, important topics as the board prepares for the next budget cycle this spring.
Metro officials said they understand that the weekend shutdowns can be a major inconvenience, but they argue that the work is crucial to rebuilding an ailing rail system that must meet national safety standards and is nearing its capacity of nearly 1 million rider trips each weekday.
“We went through 35 years without paying much time or attention to renewing the Metro system,” said Rich Bradley, head of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, a group that promotes business development. “Now they’re playing a massive game of catch-up. The consequences are there are going to be disruptions for riders.”
The weekend disruptions come at the same time Metro is experiencing a drop in its ridership. Overall, Metro rail ridership from July to December was down about 5 percent, to 101.8 million trips, compared to the same time period in 2011. Weekend rail ridership is down 9 percent, to 13.4 million trips. Rail ridership at rush hours on weekdays is down 3 percent.
Those drops, combined with a decline in bus ridership and lower parking fees, mean the transit agency’s revenue is $20.2 million below what it had budgeted for the fiscal year. The agency also might lose $12 million in revenue if federal workers are furloughed in coming months.
Metro officials said they think the drops in ridership are caused by several factors. The system had to close for nearly two days because of Hurricane Sandy, and President Obama gave government workers a federal holiday on Christmas Eve, which last year was on a weekday.
Metro also said riders were hit by a temporary drop in federal transit benefits and an across-the-board fare increase this past summer, and some riders are avoiding the system when there’s weekend track work.
For Mallory and her nephews Saturday, the fact that Metro crews were working on all five lines in the system meant an arduous trip.
At 7:45 a.m., Mallory and her two nephews — ages 4 and 6 — got on a Green Line train at the Anacostia station, rode to L’Enfant Plaza and switched to an Orange Line train toward New Carrollton.
But two stations along the line were closed, so Mallory and the boys had to get off at Stadium-Armory and board a waiting shuttle bus that drove them about 15 minutes past the closed Metro stations — Deanwood and Minnesota Avenue — to the Cheverly stop.
“Are we there yet?” asked Robert, 6, as he rode the bus with his aunt.
Mallory, who does not have a car and uses public transportation daily, patiently answered him.
“Not quite,” she said as the bus drove around RFK Stadium. In the distance, two huge pieces of Metrorail equipment sat on the tracks as crews worked to replace rail joints and fix grout pads along the tracks.
Once at the Cheverly station, the trio got back on the Orange Line and went two stops to New Carrollton. Another 10-minute bus ride, and they arrived at her mother’s house. It took nearly three hours to make the 15-mile trip.
“Getting on a train, then off. Then on a shuttle bus, dealing with traffic to get to another station and then back on the train,” said Mallory, who is a rap musician. “The whole thing is crazy and frustrating.”
Jeanell Farmer of Southeast also took her chances on Metro on Saturday, opting to ride the train instead of driving to sign her teenage daughter up for the city’s summer jobs program. But after a nearly three-hour trip — including her regular bus line to the Southern Avenue rail station on the Green Line, switching train lines, waiting for trains and then riding a special shuttle bus to get around the construction work — she was worn out.
“It’s annoying when you’ve got places to go,” Farmer said. “I could have been there in less than an hour going straight on the train.”
Joi Fisher of Southeast arrived 15 minutes late Saturday to her job as a security guard at a building in Foggy Bottom after she got to the Minnesota Avenue station and found it closed because of track work. She said she left herself plenty of time to use the bathroom and get food before starting her noon shift, but having to take a shuttle bus past the two closed stops to get back on the train at Stadium-Armory cut into her time.
“It’s usually convenient to take the train, but it’s becoming less and less so,” Fisher said. “It is horrible and frustrating.”
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has pushed for a more aggressive approach to weekend track work, calling for construction almost every weekend on all five rail lines in the past two years. Metro said it is making progress, having replaced 12 miles of rail and 36,000 fasteners while also fixing leaks and platforms. The transit agency has stopped doing track work during the middle of weekdays, but officials warn riders that there will still be four more years of intensive weekend and overnight track work.
Although Metro crews work overnight when the system is closed to passengers, the tight window doesn’t allow extensive rehabilitation projects because there is little time to get large pieces of equipment, supplies and workers on and off the tracks.
“We really do understand the impact to customers, but weekends are a critical time for us to do work because we have a larger chunk of time to mobilize equipment and crews,” said Rob Troup, acting deputy general manager for rail operations.
“You can’t do the amount of work we have to do in a short time,” Troup said. “We have to catch up to a steady state of maintenance.”