Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld will propose a permanent end to late-night weekend subway service, alarming District officials and business leaders who say that a curtailed system would hurt economic and cultural life in the nation’s capital.
Wiedefeld wants to shutter Metro at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, instead of at 3 a.m., to give overnight work crews enough time to make repairs and maintain a safe system. He also wants to close the subway at 10 p.m. on Sundays.
The proposal to halt weekend trains at midnight is polarizing in a region torn between its frustrations over a perpetually struggling transit system and its explosive growth in restaurants and night life.
Metro is already operating under a curtailed schedule. Late-night service was temporarily halted as part of SafeTrack, the 10-month period of intense service disruptions that began in June and is designed to restore Metro to a safer overall condition.
But Wiedefeld’s push to permanently scale back operating hours could turn out to be his biggest test, so far, of whether he’ll be able to make decisions that are unpopular with riders as well as some members of the Metro board — especially from representatives from the District who could veto Wiedefeld’s plans.
Those members — D.C. Council member Jack Evans and Corbett A. Price — said Tuesday that they had significant concerns about scaling back Metro service and the impact it could have on riders and the city.
“It will impair the business community. It will also impair the night life,” Price said. “Service workers, the people working in restaurants . . . that’s a tremendous impact on the community.”
Evans acknowledged the need to prioritize maintenance but said he wasn’t convinced that the long-term schedule change is necessary.
“I know the issue is finding track time — I know that makes sense today,” he said. “But I don’t know if that makes sense a year from now, and forever.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tacked on her own qualms. “This proposal is premature and would be detrimental to small businesses and working families,” she said in a statement.
Earlier this year, Bowser made an eleventh-hour entreaty to Wiedefeld, asking him to maintain early openings and late closings for special events during SafeTrack. He refused to change course.
Any permanent change in operating hours would require the approval of Metro’s board of directors. Wiedefeld will present his proposal at Thursday’s board meeting.
Wiedefeld’s push for permanent service cuts offers an early hint of what many have come to believe is a foregone conclusion: The end of the SafeTrack project won’t be the end of widespread, painful service interruptions and cutbacks.
“This is the new normal,” said Michael Goldman, a voting member of the Metro board who represents Maryland. “The idea that we’re going to solve all of our safety and investment problems in a nine-month period — that was a little bit of a fantasy.”
Metro is a two-track system, which means it cannot perform regular maintenance without shutting down one or both tracks. By contrast, the New York City subway can operate 24 hours a day because it has four tracks, allowing crews to take one set of tracks out of service while trains continue to run on nearby tracks.
Any permanent change in the Metro schedule wouldn’t happen at least until the end of SafeTrack, scheduled to conclude in March, and there will be several public meetings before a proposal is finalized, Metro officials said.
Christian Dorsey, a non-voting Metro board member representing Virginia, said he believes that Metro has to justify any significant change in operating hours, including providing detailed data and ridership numbers to indicate who would be most affected by the change. Barry Stanton, deputy chief administrator officer of public infrastructure in Prince George’s County, said he also wanted more data.
“This proposal needs a lot of vetting and a lot of engagement,” Dorsey said. “By no means do I think that this seems like the best plan. . . . I’m intensely interested in looking at how to do the least harm to our riders.”
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said late-night ridership has waned in recent years. Average late-night ridership was under 10,000 trips, he said, and was half its total from five years ago, although Metro could not immediately provide specific figures. Ridership has fallen as routine weekend track work cut service significantly for weekend riders.
Metro began late-night service in 1999, when representatives from the District pushed for extended service hours to support local businesses, boost ridership and prevent drunken driving. At the time, members of the Metro board who represented the suburbs opposed the idea, arguing that the transit agency’s limited funds would be better used to improve daily commuter service.
But, just a few months after launching a pilot program to test late-night service, Metro officials declared it a success, saying the smaller maintenance window on Friday and Saturday nights had not caused any maintenance problems.
Now, Wiedefeld says, that attitude needs to change.
“The additional track time increases safety and reliability by giving workers the time and space they need to keep Metro’s infrastructure in a state of good repair,” Metro said in a statement, pointing out that the permanent schedule change would reduce the number of operating hours on the system by only eight hours per week.
Metro officials said that Wiedefeld consulted with other transit agencies and engineering consultants to determine whether keeping the curtailed hours permanent was the best option.
But business leaders are worried.
“We have heard from member restaurants that sales are down as much as 20 percent due to early Metro closures and the current SafeTrack schedule,” said Kathy E. Hollinger, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “The impact of the Metrorail’s schedule on restaurants and small businesses cannot be ignored.”
Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle business-improvement district, wondered if there is a less-drastic approach. “Are there ways to do partial closures and still be able to accomplish what you’re trying to do by closing down the entire system?” she asked.
Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns Verizon Center and sports teams including the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards, warned about a potential negative impact on their business and others.
“While we have supported the changes necessary to ensure the system’s safety, any permanent change that would negatively impact the ability of our fans to get to and from Nationals Park is very concerning,” said a spokeswoman for the Nationals. “In a world-class city such as Washington, we feel strongly that Metro should offer late-night service every night of the week. This proposal – if approved – would move our city in the wrong direction.”
But some regional officials, such as Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner and Alexandria mayor Allison Silberberg, seemed more amenable to the idea.
“If, for the time being, we need more maintenance, if that’s what it’s going to take, I’m for it,” Silberberg said. “In the near future, I hope we can come back to these longer hours.”
Aaron C. Davis, Arelis R. Hernández, Antonio Olivo and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.