Hundreds of thousands of Washington-area residents will face major disruptions to their daily commutes after Metro launches its year-long maintenance blitz Saturday.
But with less than a week before the first crews begin digging Metro out of decades of neglect, much of the region — from officialdom to everyday commuters on packed trains, buses and roads — is not ready for what’s coming.
Despite a flurry of preparations, the sheer scale of potential impacts, the staggered schedule of the repairs and human nature have conspired to leave many fuzzy on the details.
“It’s not ‘The sky is falling,’ ” said James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. But “this is not going to be the stuff we’ve been used to.”
Preparedness experts are treating the impending delays like some sort of transit-tinged act of God, using the language of disaster management as they work with businesses on “continuity planning.”
“It’s about the backup plan. What are we going to do if a hurricane comes through? How are we going to make sure the business stays afloat? It doesn’t have to be a hurricane. It can be the Metro,” said Christina Crue, a crisis manager at the firm Witt O’Brien’s, which is advising the Board of Trade.
Many have been in denial.
“Oh, no. Oh, no! They can’t do that. They really can’t,” said Vanessa Huggins, who was pressing and curling a retired schoolteacher’s hair at Genesis 1 Hair Galaxy when she learned recently that the nearest two Red Line stations — Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland — would be shut down completely for 23 days this fall. Not just at night, as many have come to expect. All day.
Soon, Huggins shifted to the second stage of Metro grief — calculation — and sought to tally the minutes she’ll lose taking a more roundabout route from her home in Anacostia and waiting for slower buses. It didn’t look good. “I don’t like idle time like that. I like to keep it moving,” Huggins said.
But individual calculations — and broader ones by officials and businesses trying to cope with the closures and single-tracking in Metro’s “SafeTrack” plan — are complicated by a lack of information. Metro says estimates for the delays, which will affect millions of trips, “are currently in development.” For now, the transit agency says, “major impact” simply means “very crowded trains” and “significantly longer wait times.”
Many officials and employers say they are too busy scrambling on logistics to have a clear idea of how much all this might cost them.
Beginning this week, the system will shut down at midnight, instead of 3 a.m., on Fridays and Saturdays. The first project, starting Saturday, calls for 13 days of nonstop single-tracking on the Orange and Silver lines between Ballston and East Falls Church.
The next phase, starting June 18, includes a 16-day shutdown of service along the Orange, Blue and Silver lines between the Eastern Market station and the Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue stations.
The program includes 15 projects.
As the launch nears, many officials are pushing for more information, and some are seeking at least a partial reprieve for their residents or firms.
Last week, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) sent Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld a five-page letter with a long list of questions and requests for data that city officials say they need to prepare for the imminent tumult. Where do trips typically begin and end for each station slated for closure? Where are the maps showing routes for Metro “bus bridges” that are supposed to carry some passengers past shuttered stations? How many fewer people can travel through each affected station during rush hours?
And, just days before the program is set to begin, Bowser also asked Wiedefeld for key changes. She wants Metro to reconsider the midnight closings on weekends, which will hit “the late night riders and nighttime workers who support and sustain the District’s economy.” That includes restaurant staffers. Instead, Bowser proposes rotating closures along one or two lines for a couple of months at a time.
Arlington County officials are concerned about the planned Blue Line closure between the Rosslyn and Pentagon stations for 18 days in December, including Christmas Eve, because of the impact on the million-square-foot Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.
“December is our busiest month of the year,” said Roderick C. Vosper, vice president of development for the mall’s owner, Simon Property Group. “I understand they’re under the gun. I understand the repairs need to be done,” but “if there is some . . . sort of workaround, where it wouldn’t hit us during the holiday season, that certainly would be helpful.”
Wiedefeld has shown little willingness thus far to make such concessions. Political pressure to prioritize expanded service over basic maintenance was one cause of the system’s decline, and Wiedefeld has argued that the time for Band-Aids is over.
In written responses to questions, Metro said it has no plans to loosen the midnight closures and can’t accommodate holiday changes. The maintenance push has already been vetted and approved by the Federal Transit Administration, which was given oversight of Metro safety last year after a deadly smoke incident, and it addresses concerns raised by the National Transportation Safety Board. The goal of Metro’s intricate schedule is to squeeze three years of much-needed work into about a year’s time.
“By closing the system at midnight every night and expanding weekday maintenance opportunities, the SafeTrack plan addresses FTA and NTSB safety recommendations, accelerates work to eliminate maintenance backlogs and restores Metro infrastructure to good health,” Metro officials said in a statement. On the Pentagon City mall, they added, “careful consideration was given to properly prioritize this maintenance work while ensuring the least amount of impact on riders.”
Bowser also asked the transit agency to “reduce inefficiencies” by moving buses from low-ridership areas to places hit hard by the repair work. Her transportation chief, Leif Dormsjo, pointed to the shutdown of the Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue stations starting June 18. Dormsjo said Metro’s plan to add 40 buses as alternatives during most of the projects won’t come close to matching the capacity of rail. He calls it merely “lifeline service.”
Metro says its rail cars can hold up to 175 people — more than 1,000 in a six-car train. The agency’s larger “articulated” buses hold about 100 people.
Metro says it won’t pull buses from sparse routes to bridge that gulf, arguing that “many Metrobus riders depend on the existing network as their only mode of transportation.” Metro officials said selected routes will be supplemented, but it is unclear how much extra capacity the agency can find.
There’s been a learning curve. Some business leaders weren’t clear about what their companies faced before a series of urgent meetings over the past two weeks. “It’s been surprising how people just don’t get that when a station is shut, that means the train doesn’t go through,” Dinegar said.
The trade group’s members will soon survey employees on how they’ll be affected and whether they’re ready to telework. Firms are stockpiling laptops and testing their remote networks. Others are trying to arrange backup transportation.
Some statistics may seem comforting — but really aren’t, Dinegar said. Metro says the work starting Saturday will have a “major impact” on 73,000 trips each weekday. That’s roughly 10 percent of all weekday Metro trips. “It doesn’t sound that big,” Dinegar said.
But if thousands of Metro commuters pile into their cars for solo rides downtown, already-clogged routes such as Interstate 66 will get worse, causing ripples across the region, he said. “ ‘Ripple’ sounds like a day at the beach. It’s not a ‘ripple.’ It’s going to have impacts up and down the line,” Dinegar said. “You will begin looking at people traveling in a car by themselves during this as selfish.”
Transportation planners say persuading commuters, even those far from a particular “safety surge,” to carpool, take transit, shift their commuting hours or stay home will be crucial for the region to function well in coming months.
During a one-day emergency Metro shutdown in March, more drivers took to the roads very early, while fewer than usual drove later in the morning, leaving overall morning peak traffic slightly lighter than normal, according to a preliminary analysis by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Whether drivers will heed similar warnings and alter their routines for up to several weeks at a time is an unanswered question.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said that while the transit agency has done some rider outreach, including full-page ads in newspapers, the real push will begin Tuesday. She said Metro is launching a major effort this week in part because the agency’s research has found that people often don’t pay attention to upcoming events until they are close to happening.
Commuters passing through stations including Metro Center, L’Enfant Plaza, Rosslyn and Fort Totten can expect to see “street teams” handing out brochures, in multiple languages, about the massive project, which involves work on virtually every line in the system.
Ly said officials will post signs in stations, air radio spots, and take out ads in English- and Spanish-language newspapers. Riders with registered SmarTrip cards and those who have signed up for Metro Alerts can expect to receive SafeTrack updates. Ly said Metro is also depending on its regional partners — the District and counties served by the rail system, as well as area businesses — to spread the word. “We’re all in this together,” she said.
Fairfax County is adding buses to the Pentagon to try to dissuade workers from driving on their own. Arlington is encouraging workers to telework or walk. Officials also hope to get more people to consider biking. The Office of Personnel Management has told individual federal agencies to decide how many employees might work later hours or telecommute. Ride-hailing firms such as Uber are pushing their multi-passenger carpool services. Chevy Chase, Md.-based Geico is bringing in new vans to pick up employees and bombarding workers with daily warnings.
“I think everybody’s going to know what June 4th Day is,” said Deborah Lipsey, a Geico human relations manager.
The fact that there will be 15 separate repair projects of varying lengths in varying locales makes gaming out — and communicating — the impact a challenge, said Craig DeAtley, who heads emergency planning for MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
“We sometimes use the term ‘organized chaos.’ It’s an organized disruption of people’s lives, or a semi-organized disruption of people’s lives,” DeAtley said.
Between 750 and 900 of the MedStar system’s 6,500 nurses, doctors, food-service staffers and other workers take Metro one or more times a week, DeAtley said. Managers are shifting employee shuttle routes and adding off-site parking.
“It’s not like we’re trying to solve the problem for every individual who works at the center. It’s a statistically important but not a statistically overwhelming issue for us,” DeAtley said. “It comes back to personal responsibility, with planning on leaving early to come to work and realizing, as tired as you are, it’s likely to take you longer to come home after work.”
It took Vanessa Huggins years to get comfortable riding Metro again.
After the terror and chaos of 9/11, when her Metro commute included seeing smoke rising from the Pentagon, she was too spooked to ride the train. But for about six years now, she’s been getting to Genesis 1 Hair Galaxy with a carefully calibrated mix of Metrorail and bus. She checks an app mid-trip to see which station and transfer will get her there with the least friction.
“I’m chasing buses,” she says.
For the past few days, she’s been testing the commute she’ll face starting Oct. 10. It’s been adding roughly 25 minutes each way, a 50 percent boost in time wasted. And that’s without anyone else trying to do the same thing.
If things get bad, the salon’s owner, Melba May, said she’ll help out.
“I’ll have to go pick her up, because I can’t work without her,” May said.
Sitting in Huggins’s well-worn chair, customer Tenina Sutherland said it’s a shame what Metro has become. “It just seems ridiculous to shut down. What do you mean you’re shutting down for 23 days? What is that?” she said.
But Huggins has moved on to acceptance. She just wants a safe ride.
“I’m fine with it. I’m not mad at them,” Huggins said. “They have to do what they have to do.”
Lori Aratani contributed to this report.