Metro passengers and local lawmakers were trying to shake off their shock and plan alternative commutes for Wednesday morning after authorities announced that the region’s sprawling rail system would close at midnight and remain completely shuttered for 24 hours.
The Office of Personnel Management said that federal government employees could telework to avoid what could be crippling traffic jams in the nation’s capital, but several local school systems, including D.C. Public Schools, announced they would remain open Wednesday, posing a challenge for students and teachers who depend on Metro to get to class.
Metro’s unprecedented closure immediately drew complaints and concern. Riders asked why Metro hadn’t announced the shutdown earlier in the day Tuesday to give passengers more time to plan for a midweek standstill, and some said they are worried about what the episode says about the system’s overall safety.
Many in the Washington region were left with a simple quandary: How would they get to where they need to go on Wednesday without Metro, the linchpin in a public transit system that connects the District and its traffic-choked Maryland and Virginia suburbs?
“It’s going to affect our workday for sure,” said Henrik Sundqvist, who lives with his wife in Arlington, Va. Because the two have one car between them and work in opposite ends of the region — he in Dunn Loring in Fairfax County and she in Anacostia in the District — he said he has no idea how they would get to work.
The closure, which will allow Metro to inspect the lines amid concerns about the system’s electrical cables, might disrupt hundreds of thousands of lives Wednesday, but officials said it was in the interest of not putting anyone at risk on the rails.
Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood praised Metro’s leadership, including General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, for putting safety first.
“When you discover a potential threat to safety, you must do everything in your power to act,” LaHood said. “While the shutdown is obviously disruptive to the daily commutes of many Washingtonians, it is far better to be inconvenienced than to risk another life-threatening incident.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) also said he supported Wiedefeld’s decision to “take whatever steps are necessary to keep Virginians safe.”
But he and many other local, state and federal lawmakers said that the shutdown should serve as a wake-up call that Metro is a troubled agency in need of serious reforms.
“It is deeply disturbing that the system is in such a precarious state that it must be entirely and abruptly shut down during the middle of a workweek,” Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) said in a statement. “This is a stark demonstration of a total agency failure.”
In a statement, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) called the closure “an astonishing admission that safety has not been the priority it needs to be at WMATA,” the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Rep. Gerry E. Connolly (D-Va.) said the announcement, which he learned of from a note passed to him on the House floor, was a “gut punch” that raises many questions.
“Was there no alternative? Is this, moving forward, how we’re going to deal with major repairs when something happens?” Connolly said. “Safety has to come first, but this must be an extreme situation to justify shutting down the entire system. And when you shut down Metro, as my colleagues here are going to learn tomorrow, you essentially shut down the federal government.”
Lawmakers from outside the Washington region took notice, as well. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a noted transit advocate, said he was “deeply concerned” by the shutdown of a system that serves members of Congress, their staff members and the federal government at large.
“It’s a very serious signal,” Blumenauer said. “We’ve known that there have been problems for a whole host of reasons. . . . But I am hopeful that everybody in Congress pays attention to that, because we all live here a third of the time. This transit system is the transit system for our employees, for the federal workforce, and it’s in desperate need of everybody’s attention.”
Were his hometown of Portland to shut down its light-rail system on a weekday, he said, “it would have extraordinarily serious consequences.”
Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said he is concerned that the shutdown will have a chilling effect on tourism in the short and the long term. Metro’s inspections on Wednesday could turn up new problems that further shake public confidence in the troubled rail system, he said. “They won’t find good things,” he said. “They’ll find risks.”
Many Metro advocates and passengers said the shutdown is a sign of the need for greater public investment in the system.
“We will see on Wednesday just how important Metro is to our region,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “We hope that the ongoing challenges facing Metro will prompt our elected leaders to work together to provide the funding necessary to fix long-standing maintenance and rehabilitation problems.”
During Tuesday’s evening commute, passengers were just beginning to grapple with how important Metro is to them on a daily basis — and in particular how important it would have been to them Wednesday.
Janice Williams, a house cleaner from Hyattsville, Md., said she will have to take three buses to get to work Wednesday. She was frustrated but said she is glad officials erred on the side of safety.
“It sucks that it has to happen, but you don’t want to worry about people getting hurt,” Williams said, sitting on a concrete bench in the Metro Center station. “There could be worse things.”
Michael Laurion, 26, who is in town from Dallas for an accounting conference in Arlington, said he had planned to take the Orange Line on Wednesday morning from his downtown hotel.
Now the only thing he knows for certain is that he will be late.
He said he still loves the District and is even thinking of moving here. But the fire that paralyzed three Metro lines on Monday and now the 24-hour shutdown have given him pause about the city’s public transit.
“It makes me wonder how safe, I guess, it really is,” Laurion said.
Others received the news with resignation, having been disappointed by Metro many times before.
Heather Bodenhamer, 24, said she has experienced her fair share of delays and poor service and smoke on the tracks during the past five years. She used to travel from Rockville, Md., to Clarendon in Arlington for work, and because of frequent Metro troubles, she had to leave her home two or three hours early to ensure she would arrive at work on time.
“There were so many times I was late to work,” she said. “It’s sad how unreliable it can be. You never know what’s going to happen.”
Heidi Schriefer said she considers herself one of the lucky ones. She has several options for commuting to work and won’t be terribly thrown off the by the shutdown. Instead, she plans to take a bus from her home in Old Town Alexandria to her office in downtown Washington.
“A lot of other people won’t be able to make it in,” she said. “It’s just irritating that they announced it last minute, on a weekday, and it will affect the whole system.”
That, she said, is the Metro trifecta.