Metro Board Reviews How It Notified Public About Station Holiday Closings

Commuters react to the closure of three stations -- Pentagon City, Crystal City and Reagan National Airport -- over the Labor Day weekend. Metro is closing the stations to perform track maintenance. Video by John Johnston/The Washington Post
By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

Metro board members, seeking to improve communication in advance of planned service disruptions, discussed on Thursday ways the agency can better notify the public.

During a private, one-hour conference call, a majority of the 12-member board phoned in to listen to Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. explain why he decided to shut down the Reagan National Airport, Pentagon City and Crystal City stations from 9:30 p.m. Friday until Tuesday morning, participants said.

Several members also said the agency has shown during previous closures that it can effectively give sufficient advance warning so passengers can make alternative plans. In this case, they said, the notice was inadequate.

"Really, the concern we had was, 'Did we adequately inform the public, the potential riders and particularly the people going to the airport who don't use Metro much?' " said Vice Chairman Peter Benjamin, a Maryland representative and a former top Metro manager. "He heard us."

Several board members, especially representatives from Northern Virginia, said Wednesday that they were blindsided by the plans, which were announced Tuesday and were referred to, but not spelled out, in an Aug. 5 press release. Board members say they now understand that that the airport is less busy on Labor Day than other holidays and systemwide ridership is lower.

"I understand why the closures need to occur," Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), a board member, said after the 9 a.m. conference call. "I still disagree with them, the timing, and specifically this weekend. But I do understand the rationale."

The critiques come at a time of increased sensitivity after the June 22 Red Line crash that killed nine and injured 80.

As the Metrorail system enters middle age, the backlog of track work that needs to be done will likely grow. Benjamin said that means it is especially important for the agency to figure out how to issue broad warnings well in advance.

He pointed to major track work a few years ago at Metro Center, a system hub. The disruptions were significant, but he said Metro let people know "earlier and more intensively" than they did about the three closures this weekend.

"Next time around, we'll do it better," Benjamin said.

After the conference call, Metro posted three new pages of details that offer justifications for the track work and give more detail about shuttle bus service.

To "help customers navigate around the track work," the agency said, 68 Metro employees will fan out across 10 stations from Saturday to Monday.

Gerald C. Francis, Metro's chief operating officer, said in a statement Thursday that the agency will save more than $1 million by doing the work over the holiday weekend. The alternative would be spreading the work out over what he said would take 150 days of running trains in both directions along a single track through the affected area.

On Wednesday night, the Metro-appointed Riders' Advisory Council voted to send a letter to Catoe asking for more information about what might have prevented the agency from providing more public notice.

Carl Seip, 23, of the District, drafted the letter and introduced it at the group's meeting.

"Let's be honest: They knew this was happening far in advance," Seip said. "Communication never hurts."

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