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With quiet formality, Metro continues another year of late-night service cuts

Metro will continue to limit late-night hours to special events, paid for by sponsors, for at least another year. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

With little comment or fanfare, the Metro board voted Thursday to continue the existing schedule of reduced late-night hours, a legal formality as the region enters its second year of codified service cutbacks.

It’s been two years since the region had regularly scheduled late-night service, when the system closed at midnight on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends.

From summer 2016 to summer 2017, evening hours were temporarily reduced because of the SafeTrack maintenance project.

Then in June, the Metro board voted to allow General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to curtail late-night service for two years to give workers at the ailing transit system more nighttime hours to make repairs. The result: Metro closes at 11:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 11 p.m. Sundays.

The June 2017 resolution requires Metro to provide a track-repair progress report to the board halfway through the two-year period as a prerequisite for continuing the limited hours.

Metro board cuts late-night service for two years — with a last-minute compromise

According to the report, which the board accepted at Thursday’s meeting, the extra work time has resulted in a 35 percent reduction in track defects, a 59 percent reduction in the amount of emergency work performed during service hours and a 344 percent increase in the amount of time scheduled to perform maintenance on track switches.

When the progress report was discussed at a committee meeting earlier this month, board members said that the curtailed late-night hours had improved safety and reliability and that it was important to continue the schedule.

“I think this is the right thing to do,” board member Clarence Crawford said. “It looks like we’ve made good use of the additional time.”

Said board member Catherine Hudgins: “If we want Metro to continue and work toward being a reliable and safe system to run, this is the important part you must do in order to get there.”

But Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans is worrying about what will happen when the panel is tasked with deciding whether to keep early closures past June 2019.

Evans agreed that the expanded nighttime work has been “enormously valuable” for repairs. However, he acknowledged, late-shift workers and hospitality business owners in the District approach him regularly about how the changes have dramatically affected their livelihoods.

“This is not an easy issue,” Evans said. “So I’ll have a big decision to make a year from now, in terms of which direction to head in.”

Outside factors could also affect whether Metro reverts to pre-SafeTrack hours. For example, Evans said, if chooses to build a new headquarters in the Washington region, Metro may need to step up its game.

“We are busy downtown and getting busier all the time,” Evans said. “If Amazon comes here, we’re going to be a busy place, and we’re going to have to determine what we do at that time.”

How can the D.C. region absorb an Amazon headquarters if it can’t cope now with gridlock and housing costs?

Meantime, Evans said, he has been pleased with the range of private companies and outside entities that have been willing to sponsor extended hours during special events, such as the recent Washington Capitals playoff games.

Last year, Wiedefeld said that he would allot only 10 occasions per fiscal year when outside sponsors would be allowed to finance extended hours and cut into track maintenance time. There have been six events so far this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Already, Evans said, he’s worried that the abundance of willing sponsors (and the somewhat improved performance of the region’s sports teams) may mean the system will run out of available slots for after-hours service.

“If the Nationals win the World Series, which I hope they will, then we’ll have to deal with that issue as well,” Evans said.

In recent weeks, Exelon (the parent company of the energy provider Pepco); a partnership between the DowntownDC Business Improvement District and the nation of Qatar; and Uber have all put up hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide late-night service for Caps games. And sponsors have expressed interest in funding service for the Stanley Cup Finals, Metro said.

“We will certainly be able to accommodate extended service for the Capitals’ Stanley Cup Finals home games once funding agreements are in place,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Sponsors put down $100,000 for each hour of extra service. They are later reimbursed for however much of the deposit was covered by fares during that extra hour.

Metro late-night service back on for Caps game after Qatar agrees to provide funding through business group

And it’s made a difference, Evans said: About 6,500 people took Metro during the additional service hour after Monday night’s hockey game, which accounts for about one-third of the people who were in Capital One Arena.

Evans said he was at that game, and he spoke to an usher who thanked him for helping to push back Metro’s closing time. Because of the extended hours, she said, her husband did not have to drive from the suburbs in the middle of the night to pick her up.

Evans said he will welcome proposals from any other would-be transit benefactor. Almost.

“There’s no truth to the rumor that North Korea is going to sponsor us,” Evans said at Thursday’s board meeting. “It’s not true.”

Then, after a couple beats of awkward silence and a few halfhearted smiles from other members, he gave a little shrug. “Small joke,” he mumbled.