Metro’s top officials warned Wednesday that the transit system is in such need of repair that they might shut down entire rail lines for as long as six months for maintenance, potentially snarling thousands of daily commutes and worsening congestion in the already traffic-clogged region.
Board Chairman Jack Evans and General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld put rail riders on notice about possible extended closures at a high-level conference of local leaders.
The discussion also revealed strong resistance to what Evans said was a “dire” need for more than $1 billion a year in additional funding for Metro.
The officials’ comments underlined the depth of Metro’s problems, which are steadily becoming more apparent as Wiedefeld continues to probe the rail system’s defects since taking over as the transit agency’s chief executive in November.
Until now, Metro has typically done repair work at night or during short shutdowns over weekends.
An exception was the unprecedented shutdown of the entire system on a regular workday March 16 for emergency track safety inspections. Wiedefeld ordered that closure in what now seems to have been an initial taste of more bitter medicine to follow.
“The system right now, in order to do the maintenance that needs to be done, cannot be done on three hours a night and on weekends. It just can’t,” said Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member (D-Ward 2).
“So in order to do repairs that are necessary, it may come to the point where we have to close the entire Blue Line for six months. People will go crazy. But there are going to be hard decisions that have to be made in order to get this fixed,” Evans said.
Although he twice singled out the Blue Line as a candidate for closure, Evans said any of Metro’s six lines could be shuttered in full or in part.
He said the Red Line was the least likely to be shut, because much repair work has already been done on it.
“That’s up to Paul [Wiedefeld]. He’s the operations guy. I’m just the board member,” Evans said.
Wiedefeld confirmed that he was considering such lengthy closures, but said he has not made a decision yet. He said he expected to do so within a month to six weeks.
“I’m keeping all my options open,” Wiedefeld said. “There are some bigger issues here in terms of power and track. . . . In the last few years, we’ve been trying to do this [maintenance] in a sort of piecemeal way, and basically we’ve alienated everyone.”
The officials spoke to 100 government officials, business executives and transit experts at an invitation-only “summit” called to mark the 40th anniversary of Metro’s opening by discussing how to restore it to its original “world-class” quality.
The prospect of lengthy shutdowns received a mixed response from the audience. Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said closing an entire line for six months would be “a disaster.” He suggested stopping service earlier in the evening to allow more time for maintenance.
But Fairfax County Supervisor Penny Gross (D-Mason) said she would support such measures if Metro considered them necessary to fix the troubled system.
In limited shutdowns such as have been used in the past, Gross said, “you can do the Band-Aids, but you can’t do the surgery.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who was reportedly very unhappy that she wasn’t fully consulted about the March 16 shutdown, issued a cautiously worded statement warning that any extended shutdown would have serious impact.
“Shutting down Metro for one workday was an inconvenience; shutting it down for months at a time will have far-reaching consequences for riders and the entire region,” spokesman Michael Czin said.
“The plan must be clearly laid out, allow for rider and jurisdictional input, and provide them adequate alternative modes of transportation.”
Harriet Tregoning, who represents the federal government on the Metro board, praised Evans and Wiedefeld for being candid about the system’s condition.
“I’ve been telling Metro for a long time, ‘Quit telling us what you think we want to hear, and tell us what needs to happen’ . . . and then let’s see what the options are,” said Tregoning, a principal deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Tregoning said the impact on the federal workforce, which relies heavily on Metro to go to and from work, could be reduced by various means such as increasing the use of telecommuting and adding express buses.
Riders outside the McPherson Square station Wednesday evening described an extended shutdown as “insane,” “extremely inconvenient,” and “kind of terrible.”
“I don’t know how I would get to work,” said Meredith Westerlund, 25, who lives in Northwest Washington and uses the Orange and Silver lines to commute to a nonprofit organization in Arlington. “I would hope they would put buses in place that follow similar lines.”
Chris Williams, 48, said he might stop using Metro for commuting if it shut down for a long period.
“If I started driving in, I don’t know if I’d ever go back to riding Metro,” said Williams, who lives in Herndon and commutes to work in a government agency downtown.
Instead of an extended closure, he said, “I would recommend the obvious thing, that they shut down on weekends.”
But several people said that they would support a closure if it were necessary for the sake of safety.
“It would be majorly disruptive, but it’s better than constant delays and me wondering if there’s going to be a spark or fire,” Sophie Perry, 23, who works in consulting, said.
An extended shutdown for maintenance would be a first for Metro, but other transit systems have taken such steps as the nation’s transit infrastructure has deteriorated, partly because of lack of investment.
Chicago shut down a 10-mile stretch of rail line for five months in 2013 to rebuild it and end chronic delays. The Maryland Transit Administration plans to shut down part of the Baltimore subway system, from July 23 to Aug. 12, to replace major rail components.
Wiedefeld’s predecessor as general manager, Richard Sarles, ruled out extended closures for maintenance purposes, on the grounds that they would be too disruptive.
Wednesday’s forum — “Metrorail at 40: Restoring a World Class System” — took place in an elegant room at the Mayflower Hotel. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and the Greater Washington Board of Trade organized it to launch what they hope will be a year-long effort to increase support for Metro among local governments, business leaders and other parties.
Evans, who was elected Metro’s board chairman in January, used the all-morning forum as an occasion to sound what he presented as an urgent alarm about the need for dramatically increased funding.
Late Wednesday afternoon, he said he regretted that public attention was instead focused on the possibility of closures.
“Getting the funding and support for the system is the critical point I was trying to make,” Evans said.
Earlier, he told the forum that the District, Maryland and Virginia should create a dedicated funding source, such as a regionwide sales tax, to provide an additional $1 billion a year to Metro for capital investments such as maintenance.
He also said the federal government needed to provide $300 million a year in additional money for operations.
“If we don’t have that, we’re never going to get to be a world-class system,” Evans said.
He also said that the three local jurisdictions would have to increase their contributions next year to cover increased labor costs that he said were sure to result from negotiations beginning Friday over new union contracts.
But several influential local officials expressed skepticism about Evans’s pleas. In particular, Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said Metro needed to improve its performance on safety, financial management and other matters before local jurisdictions would contribute more.
“Until the house is in order, it’s going to be difficult to get additional funding for anything,” Rahn said.
Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) also expressed apprehension.
“I don’t agree that increased cost for operations [next year] is a given, and I don’t think that’s a good way to start a discussion regarding financing,” said Bulova, whose county is a major contributor to Metro’s budget.
“I’m not sure he [Evans] fully appreciates how much comes out of local jurisdictions,” Bulova said.
Evans conceded that he faced opposition.
“Listening to the comments, I’m not sure that a lot of people are on board yet. I think today’s meeting was an informational session to really alert people of the dire circumstances,” Evans said.
COG Chairman Roger Berliner, who in January was the first to propose the forum, said it was necessary to work harder to overcome elected officials’ resistance to more funding for Metro.
“We’re going to have to change that equation,” said Berliner, who also is a Montgomery County Council member (D-Potomac-Bethesda). “We can’t afford to wait.”
Aaron Davis contributed to this report.