Starting May 25, when Metro stops train service to Alexandria and parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties to rebuild decaying platforms, one of the six shuttered stations, Braddock Road, will require a lot of extra work. The main problem there, called “the Braddock hump,” is emblematic of age-old infrastructure woes in the subway resulting from a pattern of neglect that transit officials have vowed to change.
With a planned 15-week shutdown looming for thousands of riders of the Blue and Yellow lines — the longest closure of line segments in Metro’s 43-year history — General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld rode to Braddock one recent morning to inspect the hump. Stepping off a train, he paused, straddling the open doorway with one black dress shoe just inside the rail car and the other planted three inches higher on the misaligned platform.
“You see?” he said with a rueful grin. “Not good.”
The platform, the only one at Braddock, stretches 600 feet in the middle of the station between the southbound and northbound tracks. For 200 feet at its southern end, the platform is bowed slightly upward on both sides, out of alignment with train doors. In addition to being a wheelchair impediment that possibly violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, the hump is a trip-and-fall hazard for exiting passengers, who are warned in a recorded message to be careful.
And, unsurprisingly given Metro’s disastrous old habit of putting off repairs, the hump isn’t new: The platform was noticeably lopsided in mid-December 1983, when the station first opened.
Of the half-dozen Northern Virginia stations due for new platform decks, only Braddock has a hump problem, which has greatly complicated the planned work there. It is the reason Metro recently announced that the shutdown, initially scheduled to end Sept. 3, will be extended to Sept. 9, further hurting businesses in the area, exacerbating the usual post-Labor Day spike in commuter traffic, and enraging local officials.
Braddock Road, King Street-Old Town, Eisenhower Avenue, Huntington, Van Dorn Street and Franconia-Springfield stations, normally used by an average of 17,000 riders each weekday morning, are scheduled to be closed for 107 days starting at 1 a.m. on the Saturday before Memorial Day. Fleets of shuttle buses will ferry passengers from the six stations to other parts of the rail system. Metro has created a trip planner at wmata.com/platforms to help riders navigate the shutdown. On the website, go to “Alternative Travel Options.”
The soon-to-be shuttered stations, all with outdoor platforms, were constructed in the 1980s and ’90s, but Braddock wasn’t built correctly.
“I don’t know what the deal was back then,” Wiedefeld said, his slender frame listing awkwardly as he stared at the heave in the floor between his feet. He joined Metro in 2015, tasked with revitalizing an agency mired in dysfunction. Why transit executives 35 years ago accepted a contractor’s flawed work at Braddock is apparently lost to history.
Wiedefeld shook his head. Four adjacent stations (Braddock Road, King Street, Eisenhower Avenue and Huntington) were christened the same day in 1983 in a grand celebration of Metro expansion. Maybe no one wanted to spoil the big party; maybe the bosses reckoned that the Braddock deck could simply be de-humped later.
Of course, that never happened.
“What we did over the years was hire consultants to come out,” said John Thomas, standing on the platform with Wiedefeld. Thomas, a Metro employee since the late ’80s, was named chief engineer for construction in 2017.
“Essentially what the consultants did was just give it a look-over, a visual exercise” while scratching their heads. Figuring out exactly why the floor was askew would have required “a destructive investigation,” Thomas said, meaning a civil engineering biopsy — drilling huge holes in the concrete platform, extracting chunks of the structural underpinnings and analyzing them.
Oh, Metro would get to it someday, someday . . . until decades passed, and the trampled, weatherworn Braddock deck, like others slated to be replaced this summer, was crumbling from old age.
In recent months, gearing up for the six-station project, the new contractor, Kiewit, did a destructive investigation at Braddock and, in March, determined the cause of the hump. It boils down to this: Beneath the 750-ton deck, three concrete support towers weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds are a teensy bit too tall. Turns out the original contractor exceeded the margin for error.
To hear engineers describe the technical work and heavy lifting involved in shaving a few inches off the towers, you might think they were downsizing the Great Pyramids. Even with nonstop labor, the projected timetable of six days and nights to fix the columns, starting May 25, is “incredibly aggressive,” Metro said. While the job of installing new decks at other stations (with crews working around the clock) will also commence May 25, it can’t begin at Braddock until Kiewit finishes shortening the underlying supports.
Although a half-dozen stations will be closed for 15 weeks, not all of their platforms will be rebuilt in that span. There aren’t enough skilled workers available in the Washington region to complete the project in 3.5 months, Wiedefeld said.
The plan is to finish the Braddock Road, King Street and Eisenhower Avenue stations, and possibly Van Dorn Street, by Sept. 9, when the six stations will reopen. Franconia-Springfield and Huntington, each an end-of-the-line station, cannot be accessed by trains while construction crews at the other stations are blocking the rails day and night. So Franconia-Springfield and Huntington will stand idle this summer. New platform decks are due there incrementally in the fall, with the stations open.
Metro said it doesn’t anticipate service slowdowns at Franconia-Springfield and Huntington during the autumn work because neither is a pass-through station for trains.
Kiewit’s base price for the six-station project is $196 million, with a bonus of about $10 million if it finishes the Van Dorn station by Sept. 9. If Van Dorn isn’t completed in the 15 weeks, Metrorail users can count on more aggravation. Van Dorn will reopen Sept. 9 in any case, Metro said, but if platform work is ongoing, Blue Line trains will have to single-track through the station, arriving and departing at 24-minute intervals during rush hours instead of every six minutes.
As for the 35-year-old Braddock hump, that lasting mystery of a math blunder, Kiewit’s price for destructively investigating and eventually fixing the mistake “is still being negotiated,” Wiedefeld said. He allowed that it won’t be cheap.
In Alexandria, which will bear the brunt of the shutdown, three Metro executives showed up for a City Council meeting on April 23 and got a verbal spanking from Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D) and council members, nearly all of them in high dudgeon about the hump issue and the six-day extension of the station closures.
The 45-minute session would end with council member Mohamed E. “Mo” Seifeldein accusing one of the transit bosses of “looking at me menacingly.”
It’s not just the added agita for commuters. What about businesses in Old Town Alexandria? What about the bars and restaurants and the fortune in revenue they’ll lose with the King Street station shuttered for six extra days and nights?
“Tell me some things that are going to calm me down,” Wilson pleaded from the dais, glaring at Metro Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader, who was seated at a table with his colleagues. Taking off his glasses and rubbing his face, Wilson sighed, adding, “Because right now I’m very concerned about our partnership.”
After the transit agency announced the project last summer, it was up to politicians to sell the plan to their Metro-dependent constituents, including merchants. The six stations, all south of Reagan National Airport, are the first group of several slated to get new platform decks in coming years. With the old floors deteriorating, delaying the job would invite the chaos of an eventual emergency shutdown, Metro said. And doing the work at a slower pace with the stations open would cause constant train delays while prolonging the project for months.
That was the pitch made to voters by elected officials: Put up with a summer of discontent and it would all be over by Sept. 3, the morning after Labor Day.
Except now it won’t be.
“Why were you not aware of this?” Wilson demanded to know, meaning the ill-measured support columns at Braddock and the herculean labor involved in paring them down.
“I’m not going to tell anybody” about six days, said council member John T. Chapman, fidgeting angrily in his chair. “I’m going to tell them a month! Because I have no clue what’s going to happen. None of us up here do. . . . This is outrageous!”
Especially galling to the mayor and council were how and when they learned of the shutdown extension. The contractor, Kiewit, figured out the source of the hump problem in mid-March, and Metro publicly announced on April 18 that six additional days would be needed for the project. Alexandria officials received no advance warning.
“I found out on Facebook!” Chapman said.
“I’m finding out on a tweet,” said council member Canek Aguirre.
“Sitting for a month without telling us?” Wilson said. “Come on! This is absurd! I’m going to give you my cellphone [number] before you leave, and if you hear anything that threatens the viability of this schedule, call me!”
Leader, the Metro COO, offered few real answers beyond a technical explanation of the hump. He spoke of “lifting towers” and “bearing plates” and “all that rebar,” while the politicians listened, their faces suggesting varying levels of comprehension and unanimous impatience. Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, the calmest voice in the room, finally said, “What is the percent of probability that it will reopen on September 9?”
Leader answered immediately.
“We will be open on September 9,” he declared.
Two weeks later, as he strolled the Braddock platform with his chief engineer, Wiedefeld was asked about Leader’s promise, and he nodded and smiled. “That’s the plan.” But as boxer Mike Tyson once said about preparing for a fight, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. “As long as maybe we don’t have a hurricane or something,” Wiedefeld said. “We don’t control a lot of things. The other reality is, once you get out in the field, it’s very different than when you’re doing this on a computer.”
Three-and-a-half months of uninterrupted work, from 1 a.m. May 25 to the scheduled reopening at 5 a.m. on the magic day: That’s 2,572 hours.
The clock starts ticking soon.