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No answer on late Metro service as Nationals approach playoffs

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The D.C. government spent $611 million building Nationals Park. The Nationals’ 2012 payroll is more than $81 million.

To keep Metrorail running for an extra hour should a Nats playoff game run late would cost $29,500, or a little more than what right fielder Jayson Werth banks for a couple of innings of work.

But with the postseason three weeks away, no one is ponying up. Not the city, not the team and not Metro, which has an operating budget of $1.6 billion but says it can’t be expected to pick up the costs for providing extra service.

“It’s an expensive proposition,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

None of which matters to many fans, who just want to know how they are going to get home from playoff games, which tend to start later and run longer.

“Nobody will be happy if this issue isn’t resolved,” said Lewis Lowe, 28, a public-relations strategist and baseball fan who lives near the stadium in Southeast Washington. “Can you imagine a situation where the Nationals are tied in the ninth inning and all of a sudden people are exiting out of the facilities to make it home because of the Metro? That would be a nightmare.”

Lara Potter, a Nationals spokeswoman, said in a statement that there “are a number of parties involved in these discussions and we are looking into all options.” Metro officials have not had any recent discussions with the team or the District about the issue, Stessel said.

Fans of other playoff contenders aren’t facing such uncertainty. Transit agencies in other cities preparing for potential playoff games said they will add extra service as needed — and will pay for it.

In Baltimore, the Orioles are pushing for their first playoff berth since 1997 (when they were managed by current Nats skipper Davey Johnson). The Maryland Transit Administration says it covers the cost of keeping Baltimore’s light-rail and subway systems open an hour after the conclusion of a major event like a playoff game.

But in cities including Baltimore, New York and San Francisco, baseball has long been part of the urban fabric, and the transit systems have grown up with stadiums.

By the time major league baseball returned to Washington in 2005 after a 33-year absence, Metro was an established part of the infrastructure, so much so that in deciding where the Nationals’ stadium would be built, having a nearby Metro station was key.

Indeed, on its Web site, the team encourages fans to take the train to the nearby, newly renamed Navy Yard-Ballpark station, calling it “the quickest and easiest way to Nationals Park.”

But Stessel says that keeping the subway system and its 86 stations open late is neither simple nor cheap and that every transit system is different. Baltimore, he notes, has a much smaller subway system, compared with Metro’s five-line system.

With regular delays, perpetual maintenance and severely limited weekend service, Metro has plenty to worry about. Fares have increased three times in the past five years.

To accommodate all the requests for early morning and late-night service, Metro has set up a system that allows organizers of big events to ensure that the folks attending have a way home.

“It creates a level playing field and a fair process,” Stessel said

The Capitals have used Metro’s system. So have the Redskins.

Here’s how it works: The team signs an agreement and pays Metro a reimbursable $29,500 deposit, which covers the hour of extra service typically needed if an event runs late. Teams can put down the deposit for a game that is likely or certain to run long or can leave the deposit in place for one that unexpectedly runs late.

The Nationals, in fact, have paid to keep the trains running late this season, using the service for a Sunday night game against the Phillies.

“If you’re going to be selling out a ballpark during the postseason, and on top of all the merchandise you’re selling, to me it seems like a no-brainer to put out whatever deposit you have to put out,” said Joe Drugan, managing editor of the Nats Blog.

But after the late Phillies game, the Nats seem to have had a change of heart, which came to light last month when fans were stranded after a rain-delayed, 13-inning win over the Braves that finished after midnight. Days later, the team reportedly asked the city to foot the bill for future late Metro service but was rebuffed.

Drugan watched fans leave Nationals Park early during that 13-inning game against the Braves. With so many fans relying on Metro, he said, it would be a major problem if fans who shelled out to watch a sold-out playoff game were forced to choose between leaving early to catch a train or staying at the game and being stranded.

“And it’s not like there aren’t other teams in D.C. that aren’t already paying” the deposit, said Drugan, 26, of Burke. “That’s the real kicker here. There are teams like the Capitals that pay this fee every year. . . . That’s the model that’s been set up in D.C., and it seems to me a little bit crazy that they aren’t doing it.”

Even if a game does run long, the entire deposit isn’t necessarily lost. Metro reimburses event organizers based on how many people pay to ride trains during the extra time, but only up to the $29,500. The Nationals would need 8,150 people to pay to ride Metro home after a late game at the 41,222-seat park to recoup the cost of the extra service.

In a recent interview with NewsChannel 8, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) suggested that the issue remained unresolved because of Major League Baseball.

But Pat Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, told The Washington Post that there’s “not a policy per se” in place for how teams deal with transit costs. Major League Baseball has just never faced a “situation like this before,” he said.

Other cities, meanwhile, are already planning for playoff games, with transit plans largely sorted out. As with the Orioles, if the Braves, Yankees, Giants and Athletics make the playoffs, their fans can expect extra service.

Transit agencies in those teams’ cities are adding buses or trains to accommodate crowds, with the Atlanta authority making plans to extend service later than its usual 1 a.m. closing time if games run late.

For Nats fans, the issue could crop up again even before the playoffs. The team has night games against the Dodgers next week and against the Phillies on Oct. 1 and 2.

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company