Metro launches a track reconstruction project Saturday that will shutter part of the Blue Line, initiate round-the-clock single-tracking on the Orange and Silver lines, and close two busy downtown stations on two weekends.
And that’s in addition to the six-week shutdown on the Red Line — which, well, is only halfway finished.
So, the pamphlets distributed by Metro to commuters in recent weeks sum up the impending situation quite nicely: “Only take Metro if you have no other option.”
That’s a stance that usually causes Metro board member Christian Dorsey to bristle. With the transit system in the midst of a ridership slump, he typically shudders at the idea of directing would-be paying customers to seek other commuting options.
But in this case, Dorsey said, it might truly be best for Metro riders with access to alternative means of transportation to take a two-week hiatus from the trains. “I’m always reluctant to tell people to not use the system,” Dorsey said. “But for this one — if you have any flexibility with these dog days of summer to work from home or drive into work, I would use it.”
The details of the pain to come: From Saturday through Aug. 26, the Blue Line will run only west of the Potomac River, operating between the Franconia-Springfield and Arlington Cemetery stations. The rail connection between Arlington Cemetery and Rosslyn will be shuttered. (There won’t be shuttle buses between those stations, either.)
Trains on the Orange and Silver lines will single-track through the downtown core, which means that there will be 20-minute headways between trains on each line. Even during rush hour.
You heard that right. Twenty-minute headways. During rush hour.
And despite the fact that this is one of the two-week periods during the year when ridership is typically the lowest — that’s why all these disruptive projects are being crammed in — Metro is still setting up the expectation that trains “may not have room for all riders.”
“This is as close as possible as we can get to ripping the Band-Aid off all at once,” Dorsey said. “If you have the ability to be patient, go ahead and ride it out. We’ll get you there eventually.”
And that’s just the weekday situation. If you factor in weekends, the patchwork of shutdowns, disruptions and caveats is enough to serve as the setup for a higher-order logic riddle on the SAT.
This Saturday and Sunday and the weekend of Aug. 25-26, the Farragut West and McPherson Square stations in downtown Washington will be closed. There will be no train service between Foggy Bottom and Federal Triangle, but shuttle buses will serve those stations. Only Red Line trains will stop at Metro Center.
And don’t forget that there is no Red Line service between the Fort Totten and NoMa stations through Sept. 3.
If that doesn’t make things complicated enough, a “Unite the Right” rally is scheduled for Sunday, when white nationalists plan to gather at Lafayette Square. Along with the march participants, the rally is expected to draw counterprotesters and a heavy law enforcement presence, possibly exacerbating the situation on already crowded trains as people flood into downtown Washington.
“The transit agency is working closely with law enforcement to prepare security options that place the highest priority on protecting Metro passengers, employees, and public safety — giving special consideration to the security challenges posed by railcar space constraints,” Metro said in a statement.
In light of those constraints, it was a relief to many riders to hear the transit agency clarify that “Metro is not preparing a ‘special train’ for the private use of any group,” amid rumors that rallygoers would be provided a separate train to take them to the Foggy Bottom station.
In many ways, this confluence of construction work and potentially volatile public events seems extremely ill-timed. But the reason this is happening in the first place is so work crews can repair the tracks on the tight curve between the McPherson Square and Smithsonian stations, a central segment for the Orange, Blue and Silver lines. One side of the tracks will be shut down at a time during the round-the-clock overhaul, which will allow trains to single-track through the section on weekdays during the project.
In the meantime, the Yellow Line will serve as a lifeline for many commuters. That’s why Metro plans to increase capacity between Franconia-Springfield and Greenbelt. On the weekends, when the two downtown stations are closed, Northern Virginians traveling to stations east of Federal Triangle should take the Yellow Line to L’Enfant Plaza, then transfer to the Orange or Silver lines.
Even so, the disruptions are likely to send many people flocking to their cars, gritting their teeth as they pay for parking and adding to the region’s traffic congestion. And that’s exactly what Fairfax and Arlington transportation officials fear.
“To avoid gridlock, Fairfax County commuters are urged to consider the use of alternative travel options such as express bus connections, carpooling, slugging and biking,” the Fairfax Department of Transportation said. “Employers are also strongly encouraged to allow telework and flexible schedules, whenever possible.”
Commuters who would otherwise begin trips at stations at the eastern end of the Orange, Blue or Silver lines should consider switching for a couple of weeks to a MARC train, boarding at the New Carrollton or Greenbelt stations.
Those in Northern Virginia might consider taking VRE. The commuter rail service’s Manassas Line trains stop at Burke Centre, about seven miles south of the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU station at the western end of the Orange Line. VRE’s Fredericksburg Line trains stop at the Franconia-Springfield and King Street-Old Town stations. Trains on both VRE lines stop at Crystal City before continuing to L’Enfant Plaza and Union Station.
Several Fairfax Connector routes may serve as prime stand-ins for Metro during the shutdown: The 699 bus runs between Government Center in Fairfax and downtown Washington, while the 599 bus offers express service between the Reston North Park & Ride to Pentagon City and Crystal City. Metro is warning that those options may be oversubscribed during the peak-period window, so try to shift your commuting hours earlier or later than usual.
Arlington Transit’s 42 bus offers service from the Ballston, Virginia Square and Clarendon Metro stations to the Pentagon stop. The 43 bus serves the Court House, Rosslyn and Crystal City Metro stations.
The D.C. Circulator might be another good alternative, particularly for those trying to commute to or from Rosslyn. One Circulator route begins at Dupont Circle and travels on M Street NW before crossing the Key Bridge to Rosslyn. Other routes travel between Eastern Market and L’Enfant Plaza and between Georgetown and Union Station, which can help people avoid the single-tracking that will affect east-west subway travel downtown.
Then there are Metro’s buses: Would-be Silver Line riders can pony up for the 5A express bus, which serves Dulles International Airport and the Herndon-Monroe Park & Ride lot before continuing directly to the Rosslyn and L’Enfant Plaza stations.
For Orange and Silver line riders, Metro’s 3Y bus runs between the East Falls Church and McPherson Square stations. The 23A and 23B can ferry Ballston-area riders to Crystal City, and the 38B bus can take them to downtown Washington.
But perhaps the best option for commuters to avoid the pain and struggle of the coming two weeks is the suggestion offered by Dorsey, the Metro board member.
“Right now,” he said, “would be a great time to go on vacation.”