Aging Red Line to Get $177 Million Overhaul
Metro Rehab to Begin Early Next Year

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

Metro's Red Line riders aren't likely to get relief from what has become a painful commute anytime soon.

The transit agency is planning to begin a major overhaul of the line in early 2010 that will last years.

The $177 million project, intended primarily to rehabilitate the oldest and busiest part of the aging rail system, was already in the works before the June 22 crash that killed nine and injured 80. Yesterday, Metro officials told a board committee that they might shift some funds to areas identified by federal investigators looking into the cause of the accident. The current spending plan covers some work on train control systems, an area being probed by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The plan is expected to be approved by the full board Thursday and includes:

-- New escalators at the south entrance of Dupont Circle.

-- Rehabilitation of the platforms at Shady Grove and Rockville.

-- Track repairs from Grosvenor-Strathmore to Medical Center.

-- Upgrades to the train power system and automatic train controls.

-- Modernization of air conditioning and ventilation equipment.

-- Retrofitting tunnel ventilation and fire equipment.

-- New escalators, a staircase and a canopy at Foggy Bottom station on the Orange Line.

The first phase will focus on the area of track between the Dupont Circle and Silver Spring stations and will take 48 months to complete, said Metro spokeswoman Taryn McNeil.

Single tracking, when trains share one track, would begin as early as 8 p.m. and run through closing at midnight, Sunday through Thursday. During those hours, Red Line trains normally run about 15 minutes apart. David Couch, who is in charge of Metro's infrastructure projects, told board members nervous about delays that he thinks crews can keep the interval between trains from growing much beyond that. The section of track between Judiciary Square and Farragut North would have longer delays, and he said Metro would wait until 10 p.m. to start work there.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. acknowledged after the meeting that the planned work will probably lead to longer headways between trains.

The price tag of the revised proposal is about $80 million more than an estimate Metro board members saw last summer. Originally, the Red Line rehabilitation was going to cost $96.2 million. However, the agency added projects on other lines and additional platform and track work.

Some Metro board members, supportive of the renovations, expressed concern about committing to spend money before the NTSB notifies the agency of its findings.

"We're shooting our shot here, and it better be well-aimed," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Metro board chairman.

Catoe insisted that the maintenance work is critical. "It's like I have a leak in my kitchen, and it's flooding the floor, but I'm not going to fix that yet because I need to find out what's happening to my electrical system. I have to fix that leak, and then when I find out what it's going to cost to do that electrical system, I have to make some other priorities within my budget to be able to fund that."

The money will come mainly from Metro's capital reserves and about $34 million in federal stimulus funds.

Separately, board members expressed frustration that Metro staff was not able to clearly explain the additional protection a sister system has to address "flickering" track circuits, a malfunction that appears to be at the heart of last month's crash. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system installed a backup tool in its train protection system shortly after BART service began in 1972 "for basically resolving the issues that WMATA is facing," BART spokesman Linton Johnson said last week.

Metro does not have the same kind of tool, but it does have "diagnostic tools," said Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek.

Asked whether Metro could have prevented the crash if it had something similar to BART's system, Metro officials said they did not know.

"I want to commend you," Graham told Kubicek. "You should be a lawyer."

Later, Catoe said he will rely on a review by an independent team of signal experts for recommendations on any safety upgrades.

Staff writers Lena H. Sun and Robert Thomson contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company