As Metro officials revamp the schedule for the agency’s SafeTrack maintenance program, riders are beginning to question whether the long-term service interruptions will end by the June 2017 deadline set earlier this year — and so, it seems, are members of Congress.
In July, Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) introduced a bill that would allow the region’s federal employees to apply their tax-free transit commuter benefit to Capital Bikeshare or ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft.
The federal government’s public transit subsidy lets employees allocate up to $255 per month, tax-free, for public transit costs. The idea behind the bill: If Metro is actively encouraging people to seek alternate forms of transportation during each SafeTrack surge, it would make sense to ensure that people are not financially penalized for temporarily switching modes.
Under the original version of the bill, the transferable benefits would expire in June 2017, Metro’s scheduled end date to SafeTack work. At that time, Connolly was adamant that the alternate use for transit benefits would only be available until the conclusion of Safe Track.
“This was introduced purely to try to provide another tool in the management of SafeTrack … It was not designed in any way, shape, or form to hurt Metro,” Connolly said in July, before Congress’ two-month summer break. “I would not support extending this beyond SafeTrack. I do not want to subsidize non-transit behavior patterns.”
Now that Congress is back from its break, it appears that he and other bill co-signers have lost confidence that SafeTrack will, in fact, end in June.
The bill was re-introduced last week, with another co-signer, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), and assigned to the House’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It was included in a package of bills addressed in a committee markup Thursday, where it passed under unanimous consent, without any discussion – a sign of widespread bipartisan support.
But the bill passed last week had a different end date from the original: December 2018.
“The bill … is now being re-introduced with an extended deadline to reflect the announcement that SafeTrack construction will occur longer than originally planned,” said a news release from Comstock’s office.
Last month, Metro announced that officials were rejiggering the original SafeTrack schedule because work was proceeding more slowly than scheduled, partially due to hot weather. They also planned to include more areas in the scope of work after a derailment at East Falls Church in late July.
Last week, Metro officials announced that Surge 11 will conclude one month later than originally planned. The schedule for surges 12-15 is expected to be released in December. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has not said definitively that the finish date for SafeTrack will get pushed back.
But if the proposed bill in Congress passes, it would cover a SafeTrack period that could extend as long as two years and seven months.
“During a time when [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] is getting its house in order, federal commuters have been frustrated at their lack of timely options for getting in to work,” Meadows said in a statement last week. “My hope is that this bill will allow federal workers to expand their commuting options and not require them to depend on a sole, unreliable form of transportation during WMATA’s time period of construction.”