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Metro transit chief Sarles says maintenance backlog will take years

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 10:40 PM

Metro's bus and rail network regularly fails to meet its own performance standards, and reversing the decline will take years, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said Wednesday.

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The transit system has steadily deteriorated as aging equipment - including escalators, Global Positioning System devices, electronic payment cards and security cameras - has not been maintained or replaced, senior Metro officials said during an oversight hearing before the D.C. Council.

Budget pressures are threatening to further slow Metro's rebuilding, Sarles warned. The projected $72 million shortfall in Metro's fiscal 2012 operating budget is attributable in large part to anticipated increases in labor costs as the agency steps up maintenance, he said.

"In the past, I would say, the authority went too far in reducing its labor cost and reduced maintenance, and as a result, the system was not maintained as it should be," Sarles said. "We are trying to make up for that."

House legislation that would eliminate $150 million in federal funds for Metro - and would trigger the loss of another $150 million in local matching funds - threatens to devastate the agency's capital rebuilding program, he said.

"That is our lifeblood," Sarles said.

Sarles said he is lobbying members of Congress to preserve the funding, which has been retained in Senate legislation.

Sarles said it is unrealistic for Metro to meet some of its current performance standards, given the backlog of maintenance work.

Escalators, for example, are unlikely to attain Metro's target rate of 93 percent availability anytime soon, he indicated. Refurbishing the escalators is going to be a long process, he said. "The escalators are old. A number of manufacturers have gone out of business."

Sarles said that replacement of three escalators at Dupont Circle Station will start in May and that the project that will take a year. Three more are being replaced at Foggy Bottom Station, where several sections of an escalator collapsed recently.

Metro conducts only 40 percent of its escalator maintenance on schedule, and Sarles said he seeks to increase the rate to 60 percent.

Sarles said he thinks Metro could attain a 90 percent rate of escalator availability.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who also sits on the Metro board, chaired the council hearing, and he pressed Sarles to estimate how long that might take. "I don't want to take a guess," Sarles said.

Metro officials said maintenance problems extend to its fleet of nearly 1,500 buses. Old GPS and radio technology make it more difficult to track and space buses and to download fare payments, they said.

"The GPS and radio systems on the buses are very faulty and unreliable," Metro Chief Financial Officer Carol Kissal said.

Metro bus director Jack Requa said 75 percent of the GPS devices on the buses were working six months ago, although that figure has improved to about 85 percent.

Metro's SmarTrip card technology also is seriously outmoded and should be replaced by an electronic payment system that will accept credit and debit cards, Metro officials said.

"This system is stretched to its limits," Sarles said. "Every time we try to make another adjustment to it, it becomes much more complex and takes a lot longer than we thought."

The system's problems extend to its security cameras, which are of low quality, even as assaults and robberies increase on the transit system, Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn said.

"Many of the cameras we have are dated. They are 30-plus years of age, and sometimes they don't speak to one another," Taborn said. He said many cameras are incapable of providing clear images of suspects.

That revelation surprised Wells, who said he and other Metro riders "are lulled into an expectation that is not accurate . . . that the safety of Metro is being monitored on camera and that folks can see who's who."

"That is not the case," Taborn said.


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