Commuters are seen riding the train at the McPherson Square Metro Station in Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The Washington region’s political leaders expressed grave reservations Thursday about the possibility that Metro might shut rail lines for months at a time for repairs, and Fairfax County officials said outright that they would oppose a prolonged stoppage.

But most state and local leaders in Virginia, Maryland and the District said they could accept extended closures if they were well planned and truly necessary.

The officials responded to the surprise disclosure Wednesday by the Metro board chairman, Jack Evans, that the system might have to close entire rail lines for up to six months. He said the needed maintenance was so extensive that there wasn’t enough time if work was limited to weekend stoppages and to those hours when the system shuts down for the night.

General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld confirmed that he was considering extended closures but emphasized that no decision would be made for four to six weeks, when he plans to unveil a long-range maintenance plan.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said on Wednesday he was considering shutting down rail lines or parts of lines for as long as six months for repairs. (WUSA 9)

The chilly official response highlighted the big political challenges that Wiedefeld and the Metro board will confront if they choose to reverse long-standing Metro practice by closing rail lines or segments of lines for lengthy periods.

In theory, the general manager and board have the authority to operate the system as they choose. But board members pay attention, at the least, to what they hear from the state and local political leaders who appoint them — and who contribute roughly half of the system’s budget.

In a related development, many Democratic elected officials in the region voiced support for creating a regionwide sales tax or other dedicated source of cash to help meet Metro’s massive demands for renovation and expansion.

The top elected officials in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties— all Democrats — said they supported such a measure. A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said she was “always open” to discussing “a long-term, stable funding stream” for Metro.

The leaders were responding to Evans’s impassioned pleas Wednesday for local jurisdictions to create a reliable source to kick in $1 billion a year in fresh money for the transit agency. Speaking at a regional forum, he also urged the federal government to start contributing $300 million a year for Metro operations, given that the system transports a large portion of the local federal workforce.

But Republicans in the region were wary of Evans’s call, and members of both parties warned that it would be difficult politically to win approval of such a tax at this time.

The GOP-led Virginia General Assembly would almost certainly fight such a measure, they said. And Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn noted that his boss, Gov. Larry Hogan (R), is “thoroughly opposed to tax increases.”

In any case, the funding issue has been discussed for years without resolution. It took a back seat Thursday to the unprecedented suggestion that thousands of commuters and other regular Metro users might have to find other means of transportation for months while Metro performed maintenance.

Wiedefeld sought to tamp down public concern by issuing a statement Thursday afternoon assuring the public that “any service change . . . that could affect your commute will receive ample notice to customers, businesses, stakeholders and the region as a whole.”

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she would oppose any lengthy shutdown, because it would be unfair to riders.

“To close an entire line for a period of three months or six months, I think, is not reasonable,” Bulova said. “I’m not sure what the tolerance might be for a shorter period of time for closures, but I think we need to be very careful that we don’t end up losing patrons entirely who make different transportation decisions and then don’t return to Metro.”

Bulova also faulted Evans, who is also a D.C. Council member, for divulging the possibility of prolonged closures at an event designed to promote regional support for Metro.

“It was not a very helpful announcement,” Bulova said. “I was surprised to hear that at a summit that actually was meant to inspire the community to rally around Metro as they’ve reached a 40th anniversary.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), whose district includes much of Fairfax, also was critical.

“A long-term shutdown of any line is almost unimaginable and would have serious and crippling repercussions,” Connolly said.

Other leaders were more open to possible shutdowns, albeit with caveats.

Metro shutdown

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The Arlington County Board chair, Libby Garvey (D), joined many other officials in emphasizing that she would want to see the thinking behind any drastic action. Bowser issued a similar response.

“If they’ve got a good analysis that shows that this needs to be done, then it needs to be done. But we would not be fine with them just dropping service,” Garvey said.

Garvey said Metro would have to set up replacement service, such as buses, to serve those commuters who depend on Metrorail.

In Richmond, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said he was inclined to back Metro’s leadership. But he bemoaned the fact that the track, power system and other rail infrastructure had deteriorated so much that a prolonged shutdown might be needed.

“It’s a shame that we’ve gotten to this position,” Layne said. “We would generally be supportive, but we’d like to see the plan. We want to make sure there is no other way to do this.”

Rahn, Layne’s counterpart in Maryland, was somewhat more skeptical. He said Metro clearly had to improve its maintenance of an aged system, but he needed more information before he could support extended closures.

“I would have to know which lines and in which order and how they are going to mitigate that closure,” Rahn said.

In Montgomery, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) hoped an alternative to shutdowns could be found.

“That would be pretty drastic to close down a whole line for six months,” Leggett said.

Shutdowns of individual segments of lines “could be workable,” he said, providing that buses or other alternatives were provided.

Metro might decide on extended closures because it’s inefficient and costly to do repair work only at night or on weekends. It takes hours for workers to set up equipment at the start of a shift and to take it down at the end, sharply reducing the time available to make repairs or perform maintenance.

Metro also is at a disadvantage because it has a two-track system. The New York City transit system has four tracks in many stretches and can keep two open while work is done on the others.

Metro has long tried to balance the needs of its customers with the need to maintain its 40-year-old system.

In 2011, board member Tom Downs floated a proposal to scale back weekend service, which a staff analysis found would add 45 days a year for maintenance.

However, board members from the District pushed back against the plan, saying it would hurt D.C. businesses.

Closing a rail line would be “the last place I want to go,” then-General Manager Richard Sarles said.

The prospect of prolonged shutdowns drew a tart response from the Federal Transit Administration, which has been pushing Metro to move more quickly to improve its safety oversight.

“The fact that extended Metrorail line shutdowns are being contemplated is yet another example of the years of failure by regional leadership to address the [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] safety oversight needs,” an FTA official said.