Metro’s new unofficial conductor is 69 years old. He’s spent years of his life stressing over the bottom line as vice president of a national real estate company. For a time he also wore a suit around Capitol Hill keeping up with what Congress was doing to the lives and livelihoods of real estate agents.
But last Wednesday, Ed Lawler, who will play a part in getting commuters to Washington during the coming shutdown of six Yellow and Blue line stations south of Reagan National Airport, was happily at work in shorts and sneakers.
On a day when the waters were calm, he wore a white shirt with the black-and-gold epaulettes of a Coast Guard-licensed captain.
Captain Ed, as he’s now called, pushed two levers in opposite directions, making the engines of the taxi-yellow catamaran work against each other as he inched the boat from D.C.’s Wharf.
“I don’t want the passengers to feel me jerk the throttle around or anything,” said Lawler, who works for the Potomac Riverboat Company. “It should be smooth.”
It’s a little different from riding Metro.
Tens of thousands of commuters are going to have to find alternatives to Metrorail when the stations — which handle about 31,000 boardings a day — are shut down from May 25 to Sept. 8 so deteriorating platforms can be replaced.
While it might not work for most people, Potomac Riverboat is betting hundreds a day could abandon Metro shuttles and buses for the water taxi, which now mostly takes tourists between Alexandria’s waterfront and the Wharf, near the federal government offices around L’Enfant Plaza.
The company is adding seven weekday runs between 6:40 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. beginning the Tuesday after Memorial Day. The company will also continue running boats back in the afternoon.
It’s offering a $10 round-trip weekday fare during the shutdown for the 30-minute ride. That’s half off the current $10 one-way fare. It’s also offering a $199 commuter package for unlimited commuting-time rides, which, over the course of the 15-week shutdown, could work out to less than half the $3-per-trip Metro fare for the roughly 26-minute ride from King St.-Old Town to Smithsonian.
There’s no single-tracking on the water. But Lawler sailed the boat slowly at first, passing white buoys that mark a no-wake zone where boats are not supposed to create waves for other vessels.
In the glassed main cabin at deck level sat five passengers, but another 20 were on the open top deck, even when the wind whipped up as the boat gained speed.
They stared blankly as Metro commuters do. But it was a different kind of zoning out as they watched the water and the contours of the shore change.
Lawler was relaxed too, even as he steered around logs washed into the water by recent storms, which he said can bend a prop.
Lawler worked in real estate for 40 years, eventually rising to vice president at Re/Max. He moved to D.C. 11 years ago to work for the the National Association of Realtors to keep track of legislation and regulations and then travel the country explaining it. During that time, he would take Metro to work.
He’d take weeks off, though, sailboats for a boat manufacturer or run whale-watching charters in the Caribbean. But now he sails full time.
“This is my retirement job, being on the water,” he said.
“At Re/Max, I was in charge of forecasting how many homes we’d sell in a year and delivering that. As a publicly-held company, everybody’s looking at you. If you can’t project and deliver, you’re not going to be there long,” he recalled of his more stressful life on land.
On the water, there are no announcements about being stopped because of a train ahead.
But a flat Odyssey cruise ship pointed sideways as it turned in front of the water taxi near Alexandria.
“Odyssey 2, this is Potomac Taxi 4 coming down river. I see you’re pivoting. Do you have a preference for me to go left or right?” Lawler radioed the other ship
“We can do one whistle,” the reply came.
“One whistle in boat terms means I’m going to pass portside,” Lawler explained. “Port is left. They’re both four-letter words ending in ‘t,’ so it’s easy to remember.”
As the taxi approached the Wharf on its return trip, and the city loomed closer, it was noted to Lawler that a half-hour on the water inspires no one to head to work in their cubicle.
“Maybe they’ll be more refreshed and have a better outlook about going to work,” he said of the passengers he may soon be taking to their jobs.
Seeing the skeptical look in response, he suggested the boat could certainly help them on their way home. “We sell beer,” he said.