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What to expect when Metro maintenance disruptions begin

The Wiehle-Reston East station on the west end of the Silver Line is among the most heavily used in the Metrorail system. (Amanda Voisard for The Post)

Experienced Metrorail riders are commuters of habit. They know where to stand on the platform so that they’ll be nearest the train doors; they know how to recognize their approaching station without looking up and they know which set of doors will be closest to their escalators.

In fewer than two weeks, tens of thousands of these people may be no better off than tourists in their own transit system.

For the first of Metro’s special maintenance projects, the commuters in question will be riders on the Orange and Silver lines. But the entire D.C. region will be watching to see how they handle themselves. The others know their turn is coming as Metro makes its way through the remaining 14 projects through March 2017.

Given the short time he’s had to prepare, Nicholas Perfili has a lot to tell the disrupted riders on the Orange and Silver lines about how to get to work. But Perfili, who manages the Fairfax Connector bus services and has been heavily involved in planning for Metro’s SafeTrack program, says this when it comes to average commute times: “It’s going to be different for everybody.”

Fairfax Connector has laid out an extensive plan for moving people around the disrupted areas on the west side of the lines when the first maintenance surge begins June 4, but “I can’t predict where people will go and when,” Perfili said.

It’s not that Perfili has no practice for a situation like this. He played a key role in the massive experiment in behavior modification that occurred in 2014 when the first phase of the Silver Line opened. The changes in commuter patterns affected about 40 percent of the Fairfax Connector system.

But this is different. For one thing, transportation officials had many months to prepare for the Silver Line opening. Perfili didn’t even know the final order of the 15 maintenance surges till Metro officials announced them Thursday. Until Metro revised the sequence under instructions from the Federal Transit Administration, Perfili had been planning for a different surge to come first. In Metro’s draft plan, the first maintenance surge would have involved a disruption on the southern end of the Blue and Yellow lines.

This is part of the underpinning for his big theme: “We can’t put together anything that’s too complicated. A: We don’t have time to do it. B: We need it to be easy to understand.”

On Point B, he’s thinking of those veteran Metrorail riders, the ones for whom the commute is so routine. “They could close their eyes and do it,” he said of their normal trips on the Orange and Silver lines. “They may need some help taking buses.”

Another of his reasons for keeping the bus plan simple: The bus drivers don’t have much time to train for the special routes that will be added.

Perfili and other managers at the Fairfax County Department of Transportation and at Metro, are going to be asking commuters to understand where they can park and ride extra buses and which buses already are available as part of the regular service, as well as whether they could shift to a less-disturbed part of the Metrorail system, take a VRE commuter train, carpool or telework.

How Fairfax plans to supplement bus service

On Wednesday morning, he explained the bus plan to members of the Dulles Area Transportation Association, a group of business and civic leaders that helps people figure out the best alternatives for getting to and from work.

He answered many questions for them, explaining, for example, about the express buses that will be added for riders between Reston and Vienna and the Pentagon bus terminal. The county also is highlighting the Park & Ride lots that have excess capacity for those commuters who want to drive partway and switch to buses, VRE or carpools.

“What we don’t want to do is simply tell people to go down a list of existing [Park & Ride] facilities if those are likely to be full,” he said.

The Department of Transportation is building up a page on its website to show all the travel options available during the 10 out of 15 Metro SafeTrack projects that directly affect rail stations in Fairfax County.

But it was clear from the questions asked at the transportation association meeting that the transportation managers need to keep building. And that goes for Metro, too, which has its own SafeTrack page online.

Some issues I foresee based on listening to the questions: commuters remain confused about the effect of single-tracking plans versus the plans that call for segments of lines to be completely shut. They will need to understand which extra buses are free shuttles around closed rail stations and which charge fares because they’re either regular service or supplemental service added to get around a particular disruption. They need to know that there won’t be enough extra buses to compensate for the reduced Metrorail service.

Transportation planners are talking about the need to “manage expectations” among commuters during the upcoming disruptions. But it’s difficult for them to manage expectations when they don’t really know what to expect.

See also:
Schedules for the extra Fairfax Connector express buses
Fare information for Fairfax Connector
Regular schedules for Fairfax Connector
Metro’s list of alternative service for the first surge