How Metro can show it cares: Fix something, AC, escalators, anything

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, June 27, 2010; C02

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

On June 14, I headed to the Farragut West Metro station around 5:30 p.m., as is usual when I'm in town. I first had to put my June SmartBenefits on my card: The machines were down, so no machine would let me do that.

Next, I went through the gate, with my remaining $6 on my card, only to find the escalator was not working. Then I boarded an Orange Line train, on a day when it was 90 degrees. The air conditioning was not working in the train, so I had to sit through that all the way to Vienna. On June 16 at the Vienna Station, the escalator stopped cold in the middle of a line of more than a hundred people trying to get up. Just quit.

The system is simply collapsing, but no one seems to care. Where is the outrage? The demands for something drastic to fix all this? How is it we accept rising fares, collapsing service and system, and do it with a lack of outrage? We've become lemmings; we just let them get away with this.

What puzzles me most, I think, is the seeming failure of the region's employers, governments and private, to speak out, demand improvements and strong steps to keep this system an integral part of the region's infrastructure.

How can they accept, every day, employees that are stressed, tired, angry and frustrated when they show up for work because of what they have to go through on either the Metro or the highways? Surely the impact on productivity is enormous. Yet, the employers, along with the employees, are silent.

I don't claim to have the answers, but I'd sure like to know someone is looking for answers, real answers, not just Band-Aids that always end up with excuses because of lack of funds.

And the answers clearly are not just having people move farther and farther west, or whatever direction. The roads beyond the Capital Beltway are now more crowded that those within the Beltway. The buses to the Metro stations pour out the people all morning.

Perhaps we should, one day a week, just completely boycott the Metro, put all our cars on the roads, bring them to a complete halt, and get out of our cars and have a big picnic, music, party, etc., and send a message to the local powers that be, public and private, that the time has come to change things. Once a week, for a year or so, maybe that will get some attention, beyond raising the fares and cutting the services.

How much longer can it go on like this? Does anyone out there care?

-- Marshall Cohen, Fairfax

Metro has raised its fares lots of times since the trains started running in 1976. Why are we riders in such a funk now?

Our history is this: In the early years of Metro, the fares were going up during a period of robust expansion. Metro was a new toy. Like an iPhone, creating buzz by adding bells and whistles as it moves from one generation to the next, Metro kept adding stations and lines.

Yeah, it was getting more expensive to ride, but it was taking us to more places. And once in a while, it would slip in new consumer features, such as a plastic farecard that riders could load up and use to pay for trains, buses and parking across the region.

It doesn't feel like a new toy anymore, does it? Cohen told me that on two more evenings this past week, there was no air conditioning in his Orange Line car. Pretty typical, other riders say.

Many of those Orange Line regulars see the construction of a new service out toward Dulles Airport as more of a threat than a boon. They ask how many more riders a deteriorating system can take on. That's a turnaround in thinking about the benefits of expansion.

I do think Metro's leaders care. They spent months figuring out how to avoid handing us both fare increases and service cuts.

But the leaders have stopped making us any promises about fare increases. It's come to this: There's not even a united pledge to draw the line and keep service from getting any worse.

They don't have to fix everything at once. No one could. But they should start with something riders can judge. Escalators? Air conditioning?

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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