When Metro geared up to launch a two-week construction project that would include severe disruptions on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines, the transit agency warned affected riders: “Only take Metro if you have no other option.”
Not everyone followed that advice. But according to data from the transit agency, just enough riders heeded the warning to keep ridership at a capacity Metro could handle.
During the past two weeks, ridership on the system has been down about 11 percentage points from the same period last August. Metro attributed the majority of that drop — about 9 points — to track work in the downtown core that eliminated the Blue Line east of the Potomac River and 20-minute waits between trains on the Orange and Silver Lines.
The track project is scheduled to conclude Sunday, but not without a little more pain before it wraps: This weekend, Metro is closing the Farragut West and McPherson Square stations, as well as Orange, Silver and Blue line platforms at Metro Center. Anyone trying to travel across town on those lines should plan on using shuttle buses — or, as Metro has suggested, consider using other modes of transportation.
Although lackluster ridership numbers remain an intransigent problem, in this case the lower-than-normal ridership was good news for the transit agency.
“We have had just enough capacity to accommodate those customers who have chosen to take the Orange/Silver lines despite the single-tracking,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said this week.
During peak periods throughout the shutdown, about 20,000 people have traveled through the Rosslyn tunnel daily on the Orange and Silver lines — which, Stessel says, “is the theoretical maximum for two 8-car trains every 20 minutes.”
The rest of the ridership drop-off in recent weeks is probably because of the ongoing construction project on a northeast segment of the Red Line, which has halted train travel between the Fort Totten and NoMa stations. That project continues through Sept. 3.
In total, Metro estimates about 60,000 trips per day during the past two weeks have been taking place on other modes of transportation, or not taking place at all. So, where have these riders gone?
According to Eric Balliet, a spokesman for Arlington County’s Department of Environmental Services, roads have not been as clogged as some had feared.
“Anecdotally and through [the county’s Transportation Engineering and Operations Bureau’s] monitoring of traffic cameras, we have not seen notable increases in congestion on our roads” during the two-week project, Balliet said.
Instead, many Northern Virginia riders appeared to be flocking to other forms of public transit. According to Balliet, average weekday ridership on the 3Y Metrobus (which runs from East Falls Church station, through Lee Heights, Waverly Hills and Rosslyn before ending up in downtown D.C.) has nearly doubled from the numbers last August.
That is part of the reason Metro added extra buses to that line, along with the 38B bus (which runs from Ballston to Farragut Square, and has seen a 38 percent increase in ridership) and the 5A, an express bus that picks up at Dulles International Airport and Rosslyn before heading to L’Enfant Plaza.
Arlington Transit bus routes also have seen rising numbers, including a 67 percent increase in ridership on the 43 bus that ferries riders between the Crystal City, Rosslyn and Courthouse stations. In neighboring Fairfax County, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Robin Geiger said the Fairfax Connector and supplemental express bus service provided by the county have been “heavily utilized” during Metro’s project.
But for the masses who resisted Metro’s pleas to find alternative means of transportation and have suffered through two weeks on the remaining patchwork of subway routes, the challenges have been many.
Some riders heard reports that Blue Line service would only be available in Virginia and thought they would be able to travel from Franconia-Springfield to Rosslyn. (They could not; the operable section of the Blue Line ended at Arlington Cemetery.)
Then there was crowding on platforms and trains because of decreased capacity — not just along the Orange and Silver lines, but also on the Red Line.
For Jeff Gates, a federal worker who commutes downtown from the northeast end of the Red Line, the last few weeks have been among the worst on Metro he can remember.
“Even with SafeTrack a couple years ago, it wasn’t this bad,” Gates said. “I think part of the reason is that it’s summertime. It’s very hot. It’s very humid. The cars are packed. That adds to the oppressiveness.”
Gates has heard Metro’s exhortations to consider other options for commuting during this summer of disruption, but he has not taken them very seriously.
Taking a shuttle bus would take even longer than his current commute, which requires switching from the Red Line to the Yellow Line to get downtown, Gates said. He’s already been teleworking: His boss acquiesced to his request to bump up his teleworking to two days per week, but he still has to grapple with the subway the other three days.
As for the suggestion he drive to work . . .
“Have you tried parking in Gallery Place?” Gates said. “I’d probably walk the whole way before I’d take a car down there.”
So he has resigned himself to tried-and-true tactics of experienced Metro riders who have survived cycle after cycle of scheduled construction work. For starters, he leaves early from home, and he departs early from work to avoid the peak-of-peak hours on the train.
“But it seems like everybody is leaving earlier these days,” Gates said.
He positions himself in the just-right spot on the platform to board the train in a location closest to the escalators to make his transfer.
“Still, you’re navigating and pivoting all the time — it’s like a football player carrying the ball back and forth,” Gates said.
But the disruptions have taught him a valuable commuting lesson — one he will probably need to use even after the Red Line shutdown is finished.
“I’ve learned to just let go,” Gates said. “You’re going to get there when you get there.”