Newer Metrobuses Too Tall For Friendship Heights Station

Metro officials said they hope to resume bus service this month at the Friendship Heights terminal, which has been closed for about two years.
Metro officials said they hope to resume bus service this month at the Friendship Heights terminal, which has been closed for about two years. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006

Metro spent more than half a million dollars and two years to make the bus station in Friendship Heights safer and more inviting to commuters. Now commuters have a new problem: Many of the buses don't fit.

Officials acknowledged this week that the open-air terminal's ceiling is too low for environmentally friendly buses that carry batteries or natural gas tanks on their roofs. Metro might have to abandon the terminal, which remains largely closed, and find another site -- no easy task in the rapidly redeveloping neighborhood on the District-Maryland line that has little unbuilt land.

The effort to find a new site could be further complicated by a long-standing Montgomery County requirement that redevelopment in Friendship Heights keep bus and subway stops near each other.

Gregory Knoop, an architect who works in the building above the bus terminal, said that the closure has turned the intersection of Wisconsin and Western avenues into a traffic nightmare, especially during rush hours. Metrobuses that can't fit in the station are forced to idle in the street to wait for passengers, who are often confused about where to find their bus, since the driver must compete with car traffic and other buses to find a place to park.

"It means that buses are being put in abnormal or interim locations, and it spoils the whole concept of having a central bus terminal," Knoop said.

Metro officials had been telling residents and local officials that they would not reopen the station. But after numerous protests, Metro officials said this week that they are seeking a solution that would allow them to keep the terminal open -- at least a for a while -- using only older buses. On Monday, Montgomery County Ride On was allowed to begin running its buses, which are not as tall as Metro's, through the terminal. Metro officials said they hope to restart some type of bus service in the terminal this month.

"They were seriously talking about shutting it down and walking away from the facility. We hope we can arrive at some resolution," said Julian Mansfield, Friendship Heights village manager.

Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel said Metro's older diesel buses are just as environmentally friendly as the newer hybrid or natural-gas powered buses and would fit under the terminal's 12-foot ceiling. The newer models are only a few inches shorter than the ceiling.

Other solutions, such as raising the bus station's ceiling -- the lowest floor of an office building -- are unrealistic, officials say. Same for lowering the floor, which is at street level. Digging down would be costly and could affect the building's foundation.

The problem for Metro is that the newer buses, which make up about a third of the 1,500-bus Metro fleet, are anywhere from a few to several inches too tall for the terminal.

Federal regulations require new bus terminals to be slightly more than 14 feet tall to accommodate the new buses, but those rules did not apply to the refurbished station, Taubenkibel said.

"For us, moving back in there is really a short-term solution," said Taubenkibel, who said that Metro will continue to buy the taller buses, powered by compressed natural gas or a combination of battery and diesel, as it retires its older fleet. "The longer-term solution is what happens with the terminal at Friendship Heights. Everyone collectively will really need to look at that."

He was unable to explain how the glitch occurred and why the renovation did not take into account that Metro, like many bus systems, is buying taller buses that run on alternative fuels. Taubenkibel said yesterday that the mistake was discovered near the end of construction as measurements were being taken during the installation of a sprinkler system.

But in a Nov. 20 e-mail to then-County Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), who was seeking answers for irate constituents, Metro government relations officer Gene Counihan said that Metro had relied on 1980s building plans for the new terminal and expected to abandon the station.

Some residents say that as the station remained closed through the fall, they were frustrated by a lack of information from Metro. Several signs were posted saying that the station would open soon, but it never did.

Late last month, Metro official Stephen A. Petruccelli spoke to a county transportation committee and confirmed what many had feared. Robert Cope, a lawyer and the panel's chairman, said of Petruccelli: "He said, 'Basically we are not going back in.' "

"I have been going up [to the station] since Labor Day and saying, 'Will you please open it?' " Cope said. "It's a very attractive facility."

Whether Metro can abandon the bus station, as Counihan suggested, is unclear. Metro and possibly the building's owner, Chevy Chase Land Co., probably would need approval from Montgomery, which years ago allowed denser and taller development at Friendship Heights with the caveat that there always would be a central bus terminal linked to a Metro train station in the heart of the village.

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