Metro’s board of directors is scheduled to make a final vote Thursday on whether to cut late-night service hours for two years — and it’s still not clear whether representatives from the District will go along with the plan.
Board chairman Jack Evans and the other voting District member, Corbett Price, have both said they would agree to late-night service cuts with a provision that, after one year, the schedule would revert to extended hours without further board approval. But the proposal currently up for a vote would end the late-night service cuts after two years. And Price and Evans say they might veto that lengthier sunset clause.
To some, the battle between one year and two years seems like a trivial one. Even federal lawmakers have suggested as much: At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) complained to Evans that “just the little teeny aspects of inconvenience in Washington, D.C. [related to Metro], you debate for hours.”
But Evans says the seemingly finicky distinction sends an important message to Metro — and serves as an important symbol of how the Metro board has changed in recent years. Evans, who also serves as a member of the D.C. Council, argued this week that the one-year sunset clause doesn’t mean that he believes Metro’s new preventive maintenance program should last only one year.
Instead, he said, the board has a responsibility to demand data and evidence about the effects and achievements of the program after one year. Metro needs to earn its second year, he said.
“Everybody’s happy to give [General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld] a year, and even another year. But we want the opportunity to question at the end of the first year what’s being done,” Evans said. “We have an oversight responsibility, but some people don’t want us to do anything, and that’s the problem. Corbett and I keep saying: We have a responsibility to stay on top of this.”
“We’re not going to just say, ‘Take whatever time you need to do what you want to do,’ ” Evans continued.
An automatic two-year moratorium on late-night service, Evans said, allows members of the Metro board to more easily forget the sacrifices that are made by riders and local businesses during that period.
In letters and emails and at a public hearing, people from around the region have argued that the shortened evening hours would have a dramatic impact on low-income riders, on people who work at bars and restaurants, on drunken driving and on the popularity of new transit-oriented housing units where residents are attracted by the promise that they won’t need to own a car to conduct their lives.
Evans said that the longer, two-year sunset clause of the Metro board’s current proposal would allow board members to abdicate their responsibility to consistently assess whether those sacrifices are justified.
“What we haven’t agreed to is a carte blanche, which makes sense given the past failures of management,” Evans said.
Leif Dormsjo, a nonvoting member of the board representing the District, struck a similar tone last week. He said he disagrees with the idea that the ongoing debate about late-night service hours — and the District’s talk of potentially vetoing the proposal — is myopic, or an example of the board’s parochialism.
“There’s a hypocrisy around [that idea of parochialism] that I think people need to acknowledge,” Dormsjo began.
“People should appreciate the way this [debate] is happening, because historically, a lot of these things were not debated,” he said. “There was a deference to management a lack of transparency about what alternatives are available, and why certain policy decisions are being made.”
The board’s contrasting opinions about Metro’s proposal — and the accompanying four-and-a-half months of debate — is a good way to vet a decision that will have a dramatic impact on the lives of many riders, Dormsjo insisted.
“The late-night service cuts — they’re all just bad options, and it’s the board’s job to try to figure out the most responsible way to do it,” Dormsjo said. “And they’re doing their job.”
Still, other members of the board have insisted this week that the District must vote to support the late-night service cuts, even if the sunset clause lasts longer than what some members prefer.
“I don’t feel particularly good about it,” said Malcolm Augustine, a Metro board member who represents Prince George’s County, on Monday. “But we have to do it. The safety and reliability of the system are on the line.”
Christian Dorsey, a board member who represents Virginia, said in a statement that he believes the service cuts are unavoidable if Metro is ever going to make significant improvements to safety and reliability for people who ride the trains.
“I appreciate that reducing service over the weekend places a disproportionate burden on Washington, D.C. I also represent a jurisdiction with significant business activity that relies on workers and patrons being able to transit safely and responsibly after 1 a.m.,” Dorsey wrote. “But our first priority must be that anyone using the Metro rail system can be confident that no shortcuts were taken when it comes to ensuring their safety and the reliability of their trip.”
“We must remember that these service cuts are necessary to protect our riders from the risk of injury or worse,” Dorsey added. “It is our ethical and public duty to take every reasonable step to ensure that we don’t harm Metro riders in the worst and most irreparable ways.”