Metro to analyze schedule for rail system upgrades

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 10:47 PM

Metro will conduct a strategic analysis by June of the time required to perform critical track and safety work in coming years, laying out options for the Board of Directors ranging from late-night weekend closures to shutting down entire rail lines to ensure that upgrades are completed.

Board members called for a longer-term look at what system closures are necessary after some criticized what they called Metro's haphazard approach to track work. The analysis effectively opens the door to a broad-ranging public debate over how Metro balances the competing demands of daily customer service and rebuilding the deteriorating rail system, which turns 35 this month.

At Thursday's meeting of the board's customer service committee, board member and committee chairman Tom Downs of the District said he was shocked by Metro's ad hoc planning for track work, which is scheduled only a few months in advance.

On one hand, announcing closures only shortly ahead of time is inconvenient for customers, he said. A larger concern is that under the current closure plan, Metro may not have adequate time to carry out the aggressive track work envisioned in its six-year, $5 billion capital improvement plan.

"I don't believe we are meeting the needs of our customers if we are accidentally backing into major strategies that mean delaying or postponing the rail investment," he said.

Downs said that if Metro falls behind in executing its capital improvements, the local, state and federal stakeholders who fund the system will balk. "We destroy credibility with funders," he said.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles acknowledged that Metro has lacked a systematic plan for the rebuilding.

"A year ago, we were lucky to be looking out a month or two," he said in an interview after the board committee meeting. "We've now lengthened that to six months," but longer-range planning is needed, he said.

The board's focus on planning closures arose last month when Sarles unveiled his fiscal 2012 operating budget and listed eliminating Metro's Friday and Saturday midnight-to-3 a.m. service as one option for helping close the $72 million operating budget gap. He noted that the service cut would also allow for additional track work.

Board members from the District, including Tommy Wells and Michael Brown, raised questions about cutting that service, which would hurt District establishments. Downs asked Sarles to provide more information on the need for additional hours to upgrade the rail system.

For the first time in recent memory, board members discussed the possibility of closing entire rail lines to complete the work. "In Chicago, we made a very difficult decision to shut down an entire rail line for two years," said federal board member Marcel Acosta.

Sarles said that closing a rail line would be "the last place I want to go," and noted that Chicago and Philadelphia had taken that approach to overhaul heavily deteriorated lines. "We're not that old," Sarles said.

He said other, less drastic options could include opening later in the mornings on weekends or closing down one line for several weekends in a row.

Also at Thursday's meeting, board members discussed a major plan to alleviate crowding by shifting one-third of Blue Line trains from Franconia/Springfield to operate over the Yellow Line bridge to L'Enfant Plaza in fiscal 2012. It is estimated that the change will affect more than 100,000 riders, and Metro's staff briefed the board on the plan to redesign system maps and signs to minimize customer confusion.

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