By Lena H. Sun and Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 5, 2007
On Fridays at midnight, the platform at Metro Center Station looks a lot like it does at rush hour. Tired workers, sweat dripping from their foreheads, wait for their trains home. The chatter of a group of 20-somethings echoes through the station. And it's crowded -- riders line the platform and fill the benches.
Leaning on a trash can among the masses is Charles LaDuca, a 42-year-old government consultant who again pulled a long day at the office and is counting on Metro to get him to his Silver Spring home.
"We're here occasionally really late, and we're really dependent on it being open," LaDuca said on a recent Friday night. "With traffic, driving isn't an option for me on a regular basis."
It might have to become one, because Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. is considering replacing the night-owl weekend trains with buses as a way to cut costs and provide more time for the agency to work in stations and on tracks. Catoe has asked Metro staff members to research the feasibility of his plan, and he expects a response by next month.
"I have to look at every option I can to reduce costs," Catoe said. "I don't know the numbers, but if we can't save anything, I'm not even going to take it to the board."
The reevaluation of late-night service -- which runs from midnight to 3 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on all train lines -- is part of an overall review of Metro's finances as the transit agency looks to next year, when officials expect to raise fares because of an expected budget gap. Catoe scrapped a plan to raise rail and bus fares this year but has frequently said he plans to propose an across-the-board increase this fall.
Metro trains first began running after midnight in 1999, when the system's hours were extended to 1 a.m. At the time, Metro had the earliest closing time among the nation's major transit systems, and the move was celebrated as a sign that button-down Washington was getting a shade hipper.
Spurred by support from riders and late-night businesses, Metro has gradually pushed its weekend closing time to 3 a.m., despite objections from agency officials over its approximate $5 million cost and its impact on the system.
Late-night service was an immediate hit when it began, but ridership started to drop in 2004, when Metro began charging premium instead of off-peak fares between 2 and 3 a.m.
In May 2006, the average after-midnight ridership on weekends was 22,376 trips, down 27 percent from 30,649 in May 2005. The number of late-night riders rose slightly this May, averaging 23,184 trips per weekend. Nearly half of those riders boarded trains between midnight and 1 a.m. On an average weekday, passengers account for about 700,000 trips.
In addition to trying to cut costs, Catoe is giving late-night service a look so workers have more time to repair the system. Over the years, as ridership has swelled, Metro has opened earlier and closed later, shortening the "maintenance window" -- the hours when trains are idle and repairs are made.
Late-night users aren't happy about the prospect of losing their rides.
"That's crazy," said Ruth Bittorf, 44, who was aboard a crowded Red Line train about 12:30 a.m. one recent Saturday heading home to Van Ness after visiting friends near U Street. "Look at the train. It's full!"
Nearly every seat was taken, and a few riders were standing in the aisles. Bittorf said she won't take the bus if it replaces the train. "The bus is a pain. It's trouble. It's unreliable," she said.
Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said Metro's late trains have been a "godsend" for tourists and employees. She said many of the city's 43,000 food services employees depend on the trains to get home after work.
Calvin Todd, 19, of Falls Church has been going to the District nearly every weekend this summer to listen to music at the Black Cat nightclub and 9:30 Club. At 2:10 a.m. one recent Saturday, he and friend Maya Renfro, 18, were waiting for a Green Line train after a night out.
Without Metro, he said, driving and parking would be too much of a hassle. "We probably wouldn't come, to be honest," he said.
Others, such as Tony Divino, 30, a mechanical engineer, and his girlfriend, Larissa Halstead, 31, a social worker, said they like the late-night trains because they can go out for drinks at Gallery Place and ride home to Tenleytown without worrying about drinking and driving.
"Do you know how many drunks would be driving?" Divino said. "The majority of the people on the train right now are going to go out no matter what. I'd rather have them on the train than on the roads."
If Catoe moves to get rid of the service, he'll also face opposition from some Metro board members.
"World-class subway systems do not close at midnight," said Jim Graham, a board member who also represents the restaurant and nightclub districts of U Street and Adams Morgan on the D.C. Council. "Buses are not a substitute for rail."
Graham said that any proposal to scale back night-owl service would be "dead on arrival" unless Catoe demonstrates that "safety is being compromised."
While waiting for his train, LaDuca said Metro has it backward. He said he's "totally opposed" to getting rid of late-night service. "Metro needs to expand to far beyond what it's doing now."