Metro agreed to an order from the Federal Transit Administration to give immediate priority to certain repair work before its long-term maintenance plan called SafeTrack is implemented. (WUSA)

Metro said Thursday that it will change the schedule for a huge, year-long subway rebuilding project in an effort to accommodate a new rail-repair directive from the federal government.

Reacting to an order Wednesday from the Federal Transit Administration, “directing [Metro] to take immediate action to give first priority” to certain repair work, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency will alter the schedule for the rebuilding program, called “SafeTrack.” But he said Metro has not determined whether it can begin the work cited by the FTA as quickly as federal officials want.

The FTA, which assumed responsibility for Metro safety oversight last year, has been increasingly aggressive lately in ordering repair work in a subway riddled with infrastructure problems after years of maintenance neglect.

Stessel said Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and the FTA’s acting administrator, Carolyn Flowers, had “a very productive and constructive” conversation Thursday in which Wiedefeld agreed to attempt to give priority to the work listed in the FTA’s order.

But rearranging the schedule for the rebuilding project is “like moving around the pieces of a big puzzle,” Stessel said, explaining why the agency is not yet sure how quickly Metro can begin the work.

The year-long Metrorail rehabilitation plan includes 15 projects that will require the longest stretches of single-tracking and station shutdowns.

Earlier Thursday, Metro’s board chairman, Jack Evans, had said Metro was not ready to immediately comply with the FTA’s directive. Asked whether Metro’s stance on the directive amounted to “pushback” by the transit agency, Evans demurred.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘pushback,’ ” he said. “It’s just trying to understand what [the FTA is] using to arrive at their decisions. And given that our information leads us to a different conclusion, I think we have to sit down and cooperatively discuss this.”

In a statement late Thursday, an FTA spokesman said Flowers, who signed the Wednesday directive, spoke with Wiedefeld and that Metro agreed to “incorporate the FTA’s urgent safety directions” into its long-term subway rebuilding plan.

Metro, in its May 6 announcement of the SafeTrack program, said the projects will be conducted one after another, not simultaneously, to avoid worsening what are bound to be severe disruptions for riders. This week, five days after the draft schedule was unveiled, the FTA ordered two of the projects, set for the summer and fall, to be carried out immediately, saying they are too important to wait.

One of the projects, scheduled for 16 days starting Aug. 20, involves shutting down a stretch of the Orange, Blue and Silver lines from the Eastern Market station to the Orange Line’s Minnesota Avenue station and the Benning Road station on the Blue and Silver lines, a major route between downtown Washington and Prince George’s County.

If that project were to be conducted now, as the FTA ordered, then a heavily traveled section of the subway would be closed while schools are still in session.

“We’re concerned about . . . how to lessen the inconvenience, given the amount of work that’s needed,” Evans said. “At the end of the day, the federal government gets to have their way. So what I discussed with Paul [Wiedefeld] is, let’s go back to the federal government . . . and argue our case. And maybe we can get some changes made.”

In ordering Metro to give “immediate” priority to that area, where the Orange, Blue and Silver lines share tracks, the FTA specified an array of work, including cleaning debris; sealing tunnel cracks; inspecting and replacing power cables; and replacing defective rails and several types of rail-related infrastructure.

The FTA also ordered similar work to be done right away on a stretch of the Orange and Silver lines in Northern Virginia, between the East Falls Church and Ballston stations. Under the draft schedule for SafeTrack, the work is to begin Nov. 12 and continue during three weeks of nonstop single-tracking in that area.

Stessel said Metro will move up the dates of those projects in the SafeTrack schedule. But the agency has not determined whether it can the project immediate priority.

A third project listed in the FTA’s order Wednesday involves similar work on the Red Line in Montgomery County and the District, between the Medical Center and Van Ness-UDC stations. But Metro said the work is underway along that stretch of the system, which is not part of the 15 projects in the SafeTrack plan.

Evans said he and Wiedefeld are in the dark about how decisions are made by the FTA — which is part of the Department of Transportation — and by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who has threatened to shut down Metro because of safety concerns.

Asked if he thought federal officials were being “heavy-
handed,” Evans replied: “I wouldn’t say as much heavy-handed as we need to have better communication. I just want to say, they’re reacting to their information, and we have different facts.”

On Saturday, in a separate directive, the FTA sharply criticized Metro’s response to a May 5 track fire near the Federal Center SW station and ordered the agency to take several immediate safety-related steps, including lowering the rail system’s electrical-power demands by reducing the number of cars on trains and reducing train speeds.

That would mean fewer eight-car trains and more six-car trains, which Metro said would cause severe crowding, especially during rush hours. Stessel said Thursday that Wiedefeld and the FTA have resolved those issues, at least temporarily.

He said that to reduce the strain on Metro’s electrical systems, which are need of an upgrade, and reduce the threat of electrical track fires, Metro has placed new acceleration limits on trains as they leave stations and has imposed speed restrictions in some parts of the subway. He said the limits will apply in places where lowering speeds and acceleration rates will not cause train traffic disruptions.

“Believe me, we’re all on the same page, we’re all trying to get there,” Wiedefeld said, referring to Metro’s and the FTA’s common interest in improving safety. However, as for the FTA’s train-size directive, he said: “We actually have some viewpoints on that. We have some technical capabilities. We have some history in some of those areas. So we want to make sure we bring those issues to their attention.”