Metro capital spending plan focuses on the basics

By Robert Thomson
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 8:48 AM

Monday should have been a day when Metrorail riders were singing the praises of the transit authority for adding 10 cars to rush-hour trains on the Orange and Red lines, the equivalent of 640 seats on some of the most crowded trains in the transit system. For many morning riders, it instead became just another day when Metro failed them, thanks to a power cable problem outside Federal Triangle.

Trains on the Orange and Blue lines had to share a single track through most of the morning rush. For Orange Line riders, the thought of whether there were more seats available was utterly lost amid the all-to-frequent problems of crowded platforms and trains, and a delayed commute.

Many complained that Metro wasn't telling them what was going on and how bad the commute would be. They also complained about the underlying problem: They are concerned that Metrorail is becoming less dependable. They don't know when they leave home in the morning whether they will be on time for work or an hour late.

Monday afternoon another event occurred that has a bearing on their concern. Metro held a hearing on its repair plans for the fiscal year that starts in July. Two members of the public commented on that $851 million spending plan, one pointing out that it doesn't focus on expanded capacity for the system.

That's true. This isn't sexy stuff. It's about buying and installing equipment like rail fasteners and the parts that go into the escalator guts.There aren't many possibilities for ribbon-cuttings embedded in next year's capital budget.

And there aren't many possibilities for "Aha!" moments when riders will say, "Look at all these extra seats," or, "It's been days since I saw an escalator out of service." The repairs to the system over the next couple of years will be grindingly slow, dull stuff.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles brought us briefly out of those doldrums last week when he appeared before TV cameras to announce that Metro managers were confident enough in their improved maintenance program to commit 10 extra cars to the rush-hour service. It was good that he chose to highlight that himself. We need to know that the outlook isn't as bleak as it may appear waiting on an Orange Line platform.

The odds are that over the next couple of years there will be more times like Monday, when the good news is overwhelmed by the bad news.

Congress may provide the best opportunity for bad news in the weeks ahead. Budget cutters in the House pose a direct threat to $150 million in capital budget money. If that falls to the floor in Congress, Maryland, the District and Virginia are under no obligation to match that federal spending. That was the deal worked out by former congressman Tom Davis when he guided the plan through Congress several years ago.

If Congress keeps the money in the budget, at least we've got a fighting chance of getting through this rebuilding phase in a few years. But even with the money flowing, riders will have to look hard to see the improvements they crave.

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