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Metro gets serious about outsourcing Silver Line service

A shot of the Herndon Metro station, one of six being built as part of the Silver Line’s second phase. (Lori Aratani — The Washington Post)
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A proposal to outsource operations of the Silver Line took a significant step Monday, when Metro officials issued a formal “request for information” from potential contractors who might be interested in the job.

Last year, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld floated the idea of privatizing station operations and track maintenance on the western stretch of the Silver Line, which begins at East Falls Church and ends at Wiehle-Reston. By 2020, officials expect to open the second phase of the line, which will continue past Dulles Airport and into eastern Loudoun County, for a total of 23 miles of track.

Wiedefeld is considering privatizing operation of that part of the system as a way to save money by relying more on outside contractors.

The idea had not made any significant headway. But the formal “request for information” could give Metro administrators a better a sense of whether the idea is feasible, how much interest there is from contractors and what a potential contract could look like.

“WMATA is in the preliminary stages of considering whether to partner with one or more service providers to provide certain maintenance and/or operations related to the Silver Line extension,” the document says. “WMATA is interested in exploring the types of service packages and transaction terms potential partners would find attractive.

Metro’s opportunities for privatization are limited, because of its existing union contracts. But the agency is allowed to seek help from outside contractors when considering how to manage operations on new segments of the system. Officials have already met with potential contractors to outsource bus operations and maintenance at the newly-constructed Cinder Bed Road bus garage in Newington, Va.

With two weeks of private bus shuttles, Metro dips a toe into outsourcing

In the case of the Silver Line extension, Metro’s own train operators could potentially continue maneuvering the trains through the end of the line, but a private workforce could be tasked with responsibility for track maintenance and inspections, as well as security, repairs, and cleaning duties at the station. Private workers could also provide train cleaning and maintenance at a new railyard that is being built near the end of phase two.

In the request for information, Metro officials posea series of questions to would-be contractors that offer a hint of what types of contracts the agency is considering: “In your experience working with public agencies, what performance measures for train operations and infrastructure maintenance have proven to be most workable?” Procurement officials also asked whether contractors be interested in taking over responsibilities for just the newest segment of the Silver Line.

“WMATA is not seeking a traditional outsourcing solution. Rather, it is seeking one or more partners that can utilize their experience, creativity and market-driven operating structures to provide an improved level of service on the Silver Line at a reduced cost to the public,” Metro says in its letter to potential contractors.

The move is likely to be opposed by Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which has argued that Wiedefeld’s push toward privatization will be bad for riders and will ultimately cost more in the long-run.

“You don’t have to leave this city or this region to understand that privatizing public transit does not work,” Anthony Garland, international representative of ATU Local 689, said last month. “People will run this system down, make the money they can, and when it runs down, they’ll leave and go somewhere else.”

Two years from completion: Workers have put more than 5 million hours into building phase 2 of the Silver Line