Maryland officials agreed yesterday to let Metro continue to shut down escalators and use them as stairways while the transit agency seeks a permanent waiver from the state's escalator code.
In exchange, Metro agreed during a two-hour closed-door meeting to a handful of conditions demanded by Maryland escalator inspectors, said Paul C. Gillum Jr., Metro's director of plant maintenance.
At subway station entrances where there are only two escalators and one has been taken out of service for repairs, Metro has routinely frozen the other escalator so that passengers can walk in and out of the station. The shutdowns will become more frequent as Metro rebuilds 170 escalators over the next five years.
But two weeks ago, Maryland officials told Metro to halt the practice, saying that it violates the state escalator code and puts too much stress on the machines, which are not designed to withstand the constantly shifting weights of passengers walking up and down. State inspectors also say walking on an escalator creates a tripping hazard for passengers because escalator steps are unusually steep and their metal ridges create a visual blur that makes it hard to tell them apart.
Metro managers were alarmed by the state's directive, saying it would force them to close entrances at 14 of their 21 stations in Maryland.
The transit system will seek a waiver from Maryland Commissioner of Labor and Industry John O'Connor, Gillum said. "We'll continue to operate as we have in the past, until we get a decision on the waiver," said Gillum, who headed into yesterday's meeting with his arms filled with copies of state and national building codes.
Transit officials said that if they fail to get the waiver, they will appeal to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and, if that fails, take the issue to court. "We're going to fight this," Metro General Manager Richard A. White said.
But Metro did agree yesterday to halt the practice of shutting down interior escalators at its stations in Maryland, Gillum said. Metro for years has often frozen those escalators, which connect mezzanines and platforms, and used them as stairways to improve crowd flow at busy times and reduce electricity costs.
The agency also agreed to furnish engineering certificates showing that its escalators' brakes are strong enough to withstand the weight of people walking up and down. It agreed to post signs warning that anyone with a medical condition should not walk up an escalator. And it pledged that when it builds new stations or renovates existing ones, it will install either a stairwell or a third escalator at street level, Gillum said.
Metro's escalators have been breaking down throughout the system for much of the last decade, but the problem has reached epidemic proportions in the last couple of years. Metro says the worst offenders are 119 escalators that link the street and the mezzanine level and are unprotected from rain, snow, leaves and debris.
At a Metro board meeting yesterday, support appeared to be growing for a proposal to build canopies to cover those 119 escalators, which are at 53 locations.
The board's strongest critic of canopies, Cleatus E. Barnett, of Montgomery County, said he was "slowly being converted" on the issue because "management has hammered me so incessantly on the need for these things."
Metro officials say erecting the canopies will cost $27 million and take until 2004. They are crafting three types of canopy designs to present to the board next month.
Barnett said his one reservation remains the design. "I don't want off-the-shelf canopies," he said. "Each of these stations is unique. . . . If we're going to do this, it's forever, so we ought to do it right."