Metro is on track for a Sept. 9 reopening of the half-dozen stations shuttered for its summer-long platform reconstruction project, top agency officials said Thursday. But they cautioned that an extra-powerful thunderstorm — or another heat wave — could derail the transit agency’s plans.
“We’re 30 days out [and] our contractor is doing a fantastic job,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said as he led reporters on a tour of the Van Dorn Street station. “If anything happens — we get a major storm or something — that could obviously knock this off.”
Metro is overhauling six Blue and Yellow line stations south of Reagan National Airport as part of a $200 million, three-month-long platform reconstruction project. The agency is supposed to restart service at Braddock Road, King Street-Old Town, Eisenhower Avenue, Huntington, Van Dorn Street and Franconia-Springfield stations Sept. 9.
All the stations will probably reopen on that date, Laura Mason, Metro’s chief of rail infrastructure, maintenance and engineering, said Thursday. The question is whether the Van Dorn Street station will fully reopen, or whether one side of the tracks will have to stay closed for repairs until early October.
If Metro has to go with the “single-tracking” option, Blue Line trains will service Van Dorn every 24 minutes instead of every eight minutes — translating to about a 15-minute delay for commuters, she said.
“We are working very hard to make Sept. 8 for Van Dorn,” Mason said. “If there’s severe weather, that could be a challenge for us, but we’re working as hard as we possibly can.”
Riders pining for normal service to resume should be especially leery of thunderstorms, according to Mason. Weather has already given Metro “a few hiccups,” she said, pointing to a roughly two-week period in July — known as the Great Washington Heat Wave — when temperatures stayed obstinately above 90 degrees, making it quite unpleasant for the laborers.
“But rain and lightning are by far the worst,” Mason said. “Because with lightning, we literally cannot send the workers out to work.”
As Metro riders watch for thunderstorms, they can also anticipate happier developments: Those returning to the reopened stations Sept. 9 will see a range of improvements in their daily commute, Wiedefeld and other Metro employees demonstrated to reporters during Thursday’s tour.
Wiedefeld said the most important fix, by far, is the “leveling” — work done to ensure the platforms line up perfectly with the floor of approaching train cars. Before the reconstruction project, several of the stations suffered some degree of imperfect alignment, though none so much as the Braddock Road station.
At Braddock Road, the platform was bowed slightly upward on both sides, out of alignment with train doors. The three-inch “Braddock hump” posed a trip-and-fall hazard for passengers exiting trains. It also impeded wheelchairs and possibly violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. The “hump” was there since the platform opened in 1983.
“One of the biggest disability community issues we had was the connection between the train and the platform,” Wiedefeld said.
As he spoke, he occasionally traced his shoe across the freshly retiled platform at the Van Dorn Street station to showcase its flatness.
Wiedefeld added that the platform project should also improve on-time performance at the affected stations.
Other improvements include nicer platform and bus shelters, larger screens to display information about train schedules, an improved audio system for station announcements and USB ports in every platform shelter.
Outdoor platforms are also being refloored with special tiles to reduce the risk of slipping. The new tiles, though colored the same rust-red as their predecessors, are larger and more porous and have a rougher surface. They provide better drainage, Mason said, minimizing the possibility of puddles.
During the shutdown, shuttle buses have replaced rail service from the shuttered stations. Wiedefeld said the buses are carrying around 26,000 passengers per day.
Wiedefeld also does not think the shutdown will cost Metro loyal riders. He said he would be surprised to see reduced ridership, compared with pre-shutdown levels, come September.
“I think people will [rush back],” he said. “I think the quality of service is such that they want to get back to us as quick as they can.”
He also provided updates on other issues facing the transit agency. When asked about Maryland’s refusal to release $56 million in funding that the agency needs to buy new rail cars, buses and other equipment, Wiedefeld said he expects the transit agency will receive the money in “a couple weeks.”
Maryland said last month that it was withholding the money because Metro has been “stonewalling” on audits and refusing to account for money received earlier from the state.
Late last month, Wiedefeld appealed to Maryland to release the money, saying Metro was making “a good-faith effort” to address the state’s concerns.
“They’re good,” Wiedefeld said of Metro’s talks with Maryland. “I think we’re really close. . . . We’re trying to be as responsive as we can.”
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said Thursday that the state was having “constructive discussions” with Metro, but suggested an agreement was not imminent. “As these concerns [of Maryland] certainly did not manifest overnight, neither will their resolution,” Rahn said in a letter responding to state legislators who had urged him to settle the dispute quickly.
The impasse has not affected Metro’s ability to fund its projects, Wiedefeld said. He had previously warned the delay could damage the transit agency’s credit rating but said Thursday: “We’re not there yet.”
He also responded to a report by WTOP that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) had set a July 2020 opening date for Phase 2 of the Silver Line. Wiedefeld said no date has been set and that Metro, not the MWAA, would make that determination.
“The reality is they don’t set the date. Metro sets the date, and we’ll do that when it’s safe and when we do our testing,” Wiedefeld said.
Phase 2 of Silver Line construction, initially projected to finish at the end of last month, has been plagued by issues such as cracks in concrete structures and defective rail ties. Wiedefeld said Metro is concerned about “some of the quality issues” with the project. He added that the agency will decide when to open the Silver Line based on “what the data shows and what the quality of the tracks is.”
MWAA is managing construction of the project, but Metro will manage and operate the line once it is completed.
Asked for a more concrete timeline, or whether the July 2020 date is unrealistic, Wiedefeld said:
“What I’m saying is, we set the date.”
Robert McCartney contributed to this report.