Metro’s effort to expand cellphone service throughout its 106-mile system has been complicated by the push to make safety upgrades related to the 2009 Red Line crash and now may not be completed until 2015, officials said Tuesday.

In a letter sent to Congress on Tuesday, Metro General Manager Richard Sarles said there is still significant work to be done to ensure wireless access throughout the nation’s second largest subway system. He said the project has required, ” . . . a level of coordination and logistical planning rarely seen in the transit industry.”

As a result, Sarles said Metro is requesting that the deadline for completing the project be extended a second time — to December 2015.
Metro, under a 2008 agreement with Congress, was to have made wireless service available throughout the system this week. But a deal reached last month extended the deadline to March 2013.
Sarles said because of Metro’s focus on safety issues in the aftermath of the crash, which killed nine people and injured scores of others, projects like the effort to expand wireless service has been less of a priority .

Progress has also been hampered by a lack of qualified safety escorts to accompany crews charged with installing the necessary equipment, Metro officials said.

Metro, however, was able to meet an earlier 2009 deadline to provide service at 20 of its busiest underground stations in part because much of that work was being done prior to the 2009 Red Line crash.

Those stations are Ballston, Bethesda, Columbia Heights, Crystal City, Dupont Circle, Farragut North, Farragut West, Federal Triangle, Foggy Bottom, Friendship Heights, Gallery Place, Judiciary Square, L’Enfant Plaza, McPherson Square, Metro Center, Pentagon, Pentagon City, Rosslyn, Smithsonian and Union Station.

In the 2011 report to Congress, Sarles said that 82 percent of the remaining stations were complete. But Tuesday’s letter offered no indication of what further progress has been made.

At least one local lawmaker said he would support Metro’s request for more time.

[I]n light of the “critical need to implement the National Transportation Safety Board recommendations that arose in the aftermath of the tragic collision in 2009, I believe Congress should provide Metro with the flexibility to continue prioritizing its resources toward implementing important safety enhancements and maintenance projects,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Tuesday.

While cellphone service is viewed as a convenience for many riders, others also see it as critical in the event of an emergency. Metro officials also use text message alerts to advise customers of delays and other issues that might affect their ride.

Metro had a long-standing contract with Verizon to provide service in the system, but as part of a 2009 deal with Congress for federal funding for capital improvements, the transit authority was required to expand the service to other carriers including AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Metro, which has been working to improve the coverage of cellphones in its system for several years, said the deal with the four carriers is expected to generate a minimum of about $25 million during the initial 15-year term of the contract. The agreements would generate an additional $27 million during five two-year renewal options, officials said..