The Friday night before Veterans Day, C.J. and his wife were on their way to Reagan National Airport, looking forward to a weekend getaway to celebrate their first wedding anniversary that Sunday.
They left work in Washington in separate cabs, planning to meet up at the airport for their 4:45 p.m. flight to Kansas City, with a weekend of jazz and barbecue in front of them.
C.J., who only wanted to be identified by his initials to protect his wife’s privacy, got to Reagan first and checked in. But his wife found herself stuck in traffic on the George Washington Parkway, exacerbated by the rain and the closure of Metro’s airport station for the weekend for track work.
Scared she was going to miss the flight, C.J. said, his wife ditched the cab. She joined others in running for the airport with her bag in tow, crying in frustration and worrying that her celebratory weekend was about to be ruined.
Days later, C.J., like many who were caught up in a mess that also saw hundreds of commuters waiting over an hour for Metro shuttles, was still angry.
They weren’t buying Metro’s explanation that the day’s rain, and not Metro’s own planning, was the main culprit for what the agency acknowledged on Twitter was “a disastrous commute.”
In order to install new concrete grout pads beneath the rails, Metro closed the Reagan National Airport and Crystal City stations, requiring Blue and Yellow Line commuters to get off at Pentagon City or Braddock Road stations and take shuttles around the track work.
But commuters waited over an hour for the shuttles, and hundreds of others heading to the airport missed their flights.
“That’s nonsense,” C.J. said of Metro’s rain explanation. “A light rain does not cause the kind of congestion we saw Friday. That pablum is simply typical WMATA deflection, nothing more. That’s not to suggest that the rain did not exacerbate things, but this was primarily a Metro problem, not a weather problem.”
Instead, C.J. and others questioned the wisdom of closing a station serving the airport at the beginning of the three-day Veterans Day weekend. Others said Metro did not appear to be running enough shuttles, and criticized the idea of switching rail passengers to buses at the already busy Pentagon City.
For regular commuters, the incident raises concerns about how coming work in the area will go, including the 14-day closure of the Yellow Line, from Nov. 26 through Dec. 9, to make repairs on the rail bridge over the Potomac River.
Next summer, Metro will close all Blue and Yellow line stations south of Reagan National Airport from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
For many commuters, the mess was a hassle at the end of a long work week.
C.J. and his wife did manage to catch their flight. But for others it took a personal toll. Angela Falkenberg was on her way to the airport Friday night to visit a friend in Cincinnati who’d been seriously injured in a car accident. But she got off at the Pentagon City to find “easily over 100 people in a very confusing blob,” waiting for shuttles to the airport or to get to Braddock Road station on the other side of the closure to get back on the train.
Suspecting that since it was already 6:45 p.m., she wasn’t going to catch her 8:30 p.m. flight, she turned around and took the Metro back home. She had to pay $200 to rebook her flight for the next day, cutting short her time with her friend, Falkenberg said. The Washington Airports Authority said she was among 250 who missed their flights that night.
“I returned to Columbia Heights with a massive headache and went to sleep to try again the next day,” she said.
Others, like a woman who goes by @mezzo_cyclone on Twitter, missed a chance to see family.
“So after I missed my flight to MI (thanks @wmata) I not only missed quality time with my brother, sister-in-law, & niece & nephew, I also missed SNOW & the neighbor’s new PUPPY. This is an outrage,” she tweeted.
She wrote in another tweet that she “ugly cried” at the airport when she had to call her brother to say she wasn’t coming.
One thing is clear. Metro did know there would be crowds at the airport. While laying the blame on a “perfect storm” of rain and gridlock, Media Manager at Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Robert Yingling confirmed in an email that the authority told Metro beforehand that it was expecting more air travelers than on an ordinary Friday night.
That ended up being the case, he said. “We experienced passenger loads in excess of 40,000 boarding flights on Friday — which is well above the 30,000 or so we normally handle,” he said.
Metro had been planning to do the work the previous weekend. But it decided to postpone the work until Veterans Day weekend, in a seemingly good-faith effort to do the work during the holiday instead of on a regular work day.
Pressed about the decision, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said last year’s Veterans Day was celebrated on a Friday. That day, Metro saw the lowest ridership at the airport between October through December, except for the Fridays after Thanksgiving and the one before New Year’s.
Stessel insisted Metro was prepared. It ran 60 shuttle buses in the area during that Friday night’s rush hour, he said. Normally, that would be enough for a bus to come every five minutes.
But the rain, he said, slowed traffic. In addition to the extra traffic caused by the Metro station’s closure, delayed flights meant more cars at the airport to pick people were circling around, adding to the mess.
Buses fell further and further behind schedule, leading to waits like the one Jesse Stanchak endured.
Stanchak was taking the Yellow Line home to Huntington from Gallery Place.
Just after the fare gate at Pentagon City, he found a crowd of people, many waiting for the shuttle and others headed to and from the mall at the station.
“You couldn’t tell where the line began and the crowd ended,” he said, adding that he thinks he and some others who had just gotten off the train probably cut in front of people who were already waiting.
“I have the commuter’s equivalent of survivor’s guilt about that,” he said.
People were only being allowed on to the escalator to the street in small groups. After not making much progress 45 minutes into what would be a 90-minute wait to get a shuttle, he tried to call for a Lyft. But with the higher prices being charged because of the demand, a ride home would have cost $40.
As bad as Metro looked, it also showed the limits of ride-share services to help when the transit system bogs down. Falkenberg said that when she came across the crowd at Pentagon City, she also tried to call for an Uber or Lyft to the airport. But the drivers kept canceling, opting not to drive into the mess.
Stanchak said he understands the decision to do the work during the holiday weekend, but said Metro should have known there would be problems, and run more shuttles, or come up with a better plan.
Rain or no rain, “the traffic is always bad around there. It’s never good,” he said.
C.J. said Metro should never have tried this on a holiday weekend.
“If this were any station besides the airport, sure, go ahead and do it on a holiday weekend,” he said in an email. “But shutting down the airport station at the beginning of a holiday weekend was an absolutely ridiculous idea.”
“There will never be a good time to schedule this kind of project, only less-bad options,” Stessel said.
And it probably won’t be the last time it happens.
“Metro is not a new system anymore, and a handful of planned capital projects like this will be necessary each year to maintain safe and reliable operations,” he said.
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