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Metro wants to rebuild 20 station platforms over three years, creating SafeTrack-like disruptions

A Blue Line Metro train pulls into the King Street station in Alexandria.
A Blue Line Metro train pulls into the King Street station in Alexandria. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

There will be no service on Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines south of Reagan National Airport for 98 days beginning in May 2019, as the transit agency embarks on a platform rebuilding project spanning six stations, part of an effort to refurbish 20 station platforms over three years.

The work, which will at times target the Red, Blue, Yellow, Green and Orange lines, will focus on rebuilding crumbling station platforms that the agency says pose a safety risk to riders and will mark Metro’s first major capital project since securing $500 million a year in dedicated funding from the region.

But the project’s initial phase, outlined in board documents posted to the agency’s website Monday, is another blow to Blue and Yellow line riders who endured substantial slowdowns and service disruptions during four SafeTrack surges last year.

“We’ve got a lot of work in front of us, and it’s going to be inconvenient,” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said. “Getting the money was only ‘the end of the beginning,’ ” he said, referring to a favorite Churchillian line, “and now the hard work starts.”

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The 98-day shutdown will be the longest closure of a line segment in the agency’s history, and the announcement of extended closures so soon after SafeTrack drew swift criticism from riders and some elected officials.

“It’s beyond disappointing — it’s really a stunning reversal of commitments made to commuters and to leaders of the region,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who supported Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiede­feld’s emergency day-long system shutdown in March 2016 and the year-long SafeTrack program but called the 98-day closure “a bridge too far.”

“At some point, you know, they’re going to be accused of crying wolf,” Connolly said. “Every time, they say, ‘This is urgent; we have to shut down — there’s no other choice.’ And at some point, that gets old,”

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) expressed dismay Monday night with the extended closures, saying that they pointed to larger systemic issues with the agency.

“This is yet another example of why Metro continues to need fundamental reforms,” she wrote in a statement. “No matter the increased funds or best intentions of current management, structural reforms are needed to insure that taxpayers get the service they deserve and we get the best value for our investment.”

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At Large), typically restrained in her comments to reporters, was aghast upon learning the extent of the closures.

“I continue to believe that Paul Wiedefeld is a straight arrow and, you know, I do not doubt his integrity — I think he put forward what is needed to be done — [but] my job is to react, and the reaction is, ‘Wow, that is quite an impact,’ ” Bulova said. “This is going to be quite a blow, and I hope that there will be the opportunity to minimize the impact of such a lot of work in such a short period of time.”

The first round of platform repairs will target the Braddock Road, King Street and Eisenhower Avenue stations, but the project will close the entire southern portion of the Blue and Yellow lines from Memorial Day to Labor Day 2019, not only to rebuild the platforms but also to accomplish a host of large-scale projects that include the demolition of the unused Huntington south parking garage, the overhaul of a rail bridge near the Van Dorn station, the installation of a new crossover near King Street, and the repair of another crossover at Huntington, according to the board documents.

“This is what happens when we fall decades behind on maintenance — commuters bear the brunt of the inconvenience when it finally comes time to dig out the backlog,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement. “This is yet another sign of the need to invest in infrastructure.”

Metro says many of its 45 outdoor platforms are crumbling after years of wear and tear and exposure to the elements, including 20 that are “structurally deficient.” Ten have been rebuilt, and 15 others are in working order.

Many of the station platforms are being stabilized until full-scale repair projects can take place. The need for braces to support some platforms and the uneven surfaces at stations such as Braddock Road and Rhode Island Avenue, most noticeable to passengers with disabilities, are clear indications of the urgency of the repairs, the agency says.

The agency expects the rebuilding project to cost between $300 million and $400 million and be completed by the fall of 2021.

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Although Metro has documented the extensive platform issues before, the need to close stations for extended periods of time came as a shock to many riders, some of whom said they had had enough.

“I lived through the Yellow Line inconvenience of SafeTrack once already and experienced what it’s like to wait for shuttle buses in the summer heat,” tweeted rider Sean Dalton, who lives in Alexandria and uses the Braddock Road station. “I’m not about to do that again. After 10 years of daily Metro commuting — so long, WMATA”

Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) said the shutdowns present a “daunting, herculean” task for her city, but like during SafeTrack, residents and businesses would manage. Four of the six stations — Eisenhower Avenue, Van Dorn Street, King Street-Old Town and Braddock Road — are in Alexandria.

“It’s hard to imagine our city without these Metro stops, frankly,” she said. “I know this will be very challenging for all of us, and we will get through this together and the system will be better for it at the end.”

But in contrast to past rebuilding projects at Minnesota Avenue and Deanwood, where stations were kept open amid repairs that took three years, the agency wants to shutter the work zones to riders this time to expedite the process.

The agency says that confining the work to overnight hours would result in a project timeline of up to 30 years. Allowing construction workers round-the-clock access to the system, Metro says, shrinks the project time by up to 94 percent and is safer and more cost-effective. The agency says the rider impact, though dramatic, will be less severe because the work will be concentrated over a span of a few months for each project rather than spread over years.

“We have an obligation to address these conditions before further deterioration occurs,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “By clustering stations during summertime shutdowns, the work gets done faster, safer, and impacts fewer customers.”

However, the program will coincide with construction of the light-rail Purple Line in the Maryland suburbs and the widening of Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway in Virginia, both of which also will disrupt Metro service, further affecting riders.

Maryland Transportation Department contractors have indicated that Purple Line construction will require the Silver Spring Metro station to close for 20 weekends over a two-year period, including eight straight weekends in the summer of 2019, when the Blue and Yellow Line closures would be in place. Metro is working with MDOT and the rail company CSX to explore whether an extended outage would be a better solution, Stessel said.

Meanwhile, plans for widening I-66 in Northern Virginia to add toll lanes will require “numerous service shutdowns” over a three- to four-year span, and accompanying bridge widening projects over the Orange Line will affect service at the Dunn Loring and Vienna stationsaccording to board documents.

Metro to launch new series of maintenance blitzes once SafeTrack ends. But don’t call it SafeTrack 2.0.

Beyond the Blue and Yellow Line closures next summer, specific work timelines have not been established. But other stations to be repaired include Van Dorn Street in September 2019, where weeks-long single-tracking will slow service on the Blue Line, and Franconia-Springfield, where the platform is expected to be rebuilt in the fall of 2019. The National Airport and Huntington platforms are expected to be rebuilt between January and May 2020.

Then, Metro intends to work on Green and Orange line platforms, including West Hyattsville, College Park and Greenbelt, and Vienna and Dunn Loring, in the summer of 2020, according to the board documents. The rehab of the Rhode Island Avenue station platform is slated for September of that year, followed by the West Falls Church platform that fall.

In 2021, the work shifts to East Falls Church in the winter, and Cheverly, Landover and New Carrollton in the summer. The Arlington Cemetery platform would be rebuilt in September 2021, followed by Addison Road between September and December.