Dear Dr. Gridlock:
Metro has planned myriad closures for repairs this summer, fall and probably beyond. In addition, there are the usual random track problems wreaking havoc. People are leaking off Metro and onto the roads.
Since the federal government is enmeshed in this in both oversight and funding, I propose that it should help mitigate the problems of this lengthy work schedule by rotating telework and flexible scheduling of all possible employees.
— Drew Bendon, Arlington
Metro’s big, new maintenance program will begin to affect weekday commutes in a little over a week, and we’re not ready for it.
Really, how could we be? There hasn’t been anything like it in the 40-year history of the national capital’s subway system.
Let’s go through some of the concerns raised by Bendon and other travelers as they review the SafeTrack Plan.
First of all, Bendon is absolutely right to focus on telework and flexible scheduling as keys to victory. No other commuting strategies will have a similar impact.
And Bendon also is correct that the federal government’s personnel policies will play a big role in making those things happen. Telecommuting and flex schedules for federal employees helped us deal with the pope’s visit, the winter storms, the Nuclear Security Summit and the one-day Metrorail shutdown in March.
The new Metro program presents some different challenges, both for transportation planners and commuters. So don’t be thinking that all will be well if everybody just does what they did for those events.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management highlighted a top challenge in a memo to federal agencies: With so many different parts of Metro targeted for rush-hour disruptions over the next year, one response won’t fit all.
OPM plans to provide guidance to the agencies, the memo says, but “individual agencies are best positioned to determine the impact that the SafeTrack project will have on their workforce.”
The agencies will need to be ready to have portions of their workforces doing the job from home. No alternative — not starting work earlier or later, not bus riding, not carpooling, not bike sharing — will provide the level of relief telecommuting can. About 70 percent of Metro commuters either telework or could do so at least occasionally, according to a study for the region’s Transportation Planning Board.
Fairfax County transportation planners have done a terrific job getting their Fairfax Connector buses aligned to ease the impact, since 10 of the 15 maintenance surges will affect rail service in the county. But Nicholas Perfili, who manages county bus services, highlighted the math on that: The capacity of one six-car Metro train equals about 20 buses.
Neither Fairfax nor Metro has enough extra buses to accommodate the tens of thousands of commuters likely to be diverted from their usual train rides on the first weekday disruption, June 6 on the Orange and Silver lines.
“There really is no way to say this won’t be a problem,” Jack Requa, a senior manager at Metro, said of the impact on Metro riders.
Sharon Bulova, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, named three essential ingredients in easing that impact: “Communication, communication, communication.”
That’s so true — for Metro, for the local jurisdictions, for the federal government and for private employers. But it’s a two-part program. The second part is to help all these thousands of commuters redesign their work trips. The first part is to get them focused on the fact that few trips through a work zone will be routine. The trip may take longer, it may need to involve a different method of travel, or both.
I have yet to find anyone in officialdom who can predict how long your trip will take during the first maintenance operation, which will involve 13 days of continuous single-tracking of trains between East Falls Church and Ballston, starting Saturday, June 4.
Many of the transit alternatives to Metro already exist, and the upcoming workweek will be a good chance to test them before crunch time comes.
Many of the options are listed on this Metro web page: www.wmata.com/safetrack.
The Fairfax County government has more details under “SafeTrack Resources” on its home page, at www.fairfaxcounty.gov.
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.