Prince George’s County officials on Monday outlined their plans for dealing with the second phase of Metro’s SafeTrack rebuilding plan, which will cut off access between the county and downtown D.C. via the Orange, Blue and Silver lines for 16 days beginning Saturday.
The plan calls for additional buses and free bus service between end-of-the-line Metro stations and additional capacity on MARC trains. In addition, the county will embark on an aggressive communications effort to encourage residents to seek alternatives.
This second “surge” of Metro’s massive year-long maintenance program is the first that includes the partial shutdown of lines. Starting Saturday, Orange, Blue and Silver line service will be shut down between the Eastern Market and Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road stations. In addition, there will be no Blue Line service between Arlington Cemetery and Rosslyn in Northern Virginia.
The surge is expected to affect thousands of trips; through July 3, 45 percent to 60 percent fewer Metro trains will travel across the county line during the morning rush hour.
Malcolm Augustine, the county’s representative on the Metro board, urged residents to seek alternatives, rather than relying on Metro to get to work.
“When we don’t have the ability to get through Potomac Avenue and Stadium-Armory, and we have 25,000 Prince Georgians who get on at the stations, and you’re only going to be able to put 2,000 through on that bus bridge — that’s a shutdown as far as I’m concerned,” Augustine said Monday at a briefing before the County Council. “If we’ve got a bus bridge with 20 buses — even 40 buses — the numbers simply don’t add up.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld echoed Augustine’s concerns about capacity.
“It’s a math problem,” Wiedefeld said. “There’s never going to be enough buses to match the trains. One of the goals here is that people who have no options still have a transit option.”
Plans include deploying more buses to depart every 20 minutes from New Carrollton to Greenbelt, offering free service on the county’s TheBus route 15X, which connects the two stations, and placing additional buses on stand-by to support Metro’s shuttle buses. New Carrollton is the eastern endpoint of the Orange Line, while Greenbelt is the northern terminus for the Green and Yellow lines.
Prince George’s was initially criticized for its slow response to SafeTrack — and a lack of concrete plans to address the surges. Much of its initial messaging focused on getting the word out to commuters and encouraging them to find alternatives.
Transit advocates noted that the District, Arlington and Fairfax County acted more quickly to announce efforts such as expanding rush-hour parking restrictions, adjusting signal timing and ramping up bike-sharing access. Late last month, when asked why it wasn’t doing so, the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation said TheBus was operating at capacity.
“If there are emergency situations, we will do our best to assist,” the county said in a statement then. “However, we are at operational capacity and do not have additional resources, in terms of buses or drivers to operate them, to support an expansion of services to supplement SafeTrack activities.”
But on Monday, Augustine and County Council Chairman Derrick L. Davis (D) said projections about the number of affected commutes made it necessary to devise its own alternatives.
“The reality for us is while we make Metro as safe as possible, there will be inconveniences for all of us that we all must bear,” Davis said. “But we do not want to have another tragedy because we were penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
The plan encourages commuters to consider alternatives — such as carpooling, vanpooling and sharing rides using any of 11 free park- and -ride facilities — in addition to laying out plans for additional capacity.
The county also plans to adjust signal timing on major roads leading into the District, push out messages to drivers using overhead signs and encourage increased state police enforcement of HOV rules.
While SafeTrack is expected to slow traffic across the region, the county warns that impacts will be worst during partial shutdowns and nearly a month of single-tracking on the Green and Yellow Lines between College Park-University of Maryland and Greenbelt later this year.
For that surge, Nov. 12 to Dec. 6, which will result in 67 percent fewer trains between Greenbelt and College Park, the county will deploy up to 10 more buses than usual between the two Metro stations during rush hours.
Augustine said he was “very concerned” about the impact SafeTrack could have on county roads — especially if residents don’t telework or adopt flexible working hours.
As for the county’s initial reluctance to adopt SafeTrack alternatives, he said, it came down to uncertainties about the plan’s timeline and impacts. The line segment shutdown at Eastern Market had initially been scheduled for later this summer.
“In sharing more of the information — the reality of what the throughput would be — it increased the need for mitigation and the understanding for mitigation,” Augustine said.
“Once we started having that conversation, bringing the stakeholders together, it became fully clear that we really did need to come up with some alternatives.”