The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Party’s over: Metro’s massive rebuilding will put crimp on nightlife

Just about 16 years after Metro first allowed Washington to party into the wee hours with extended weekend service, a massive rebuilding program is forcing the subway to once again impose a midnight curfew on riders.

Beginning next month, Metro trains will turn into pumpkins at the stroke of 12 every weekend, and some of the businesses that thrive on the city’s nightlife are already feeling the buzzkill.

“It’s pretty devastating,” Nizam Ali, owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, said in an interview at its flagship restaurant on U Street. “It’s shocking that the system has gotten to this point of needing this level of repair. It’s going to hurt business. It’s going to hurt our employees trying to get to work and get home, as it is for all D.C. residents.”

Ali said the proposed overhaul, including shutdowns of large sections of the subway, comes at a particularly rotten time. The city has been breaking tourism records, and summer is the time of year when revelers turn Adams Morgan and U Street into a roving carnival.

“The maddening, frustrating part is how we all got here. There’s no excuse for the system being in the shape it’s in,” Ali said. “But at this point, safety is the first priority.”

On Friday, Metro general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld unveiled a massive plan to overhaul the subway. The proposal, called “SafeTrack,” calls for 15 separate, large-scale projects — or “safety surges,” as Metro dubbed them.  The repairs will be conducted along different stretches of the 118-mile system and focus on almost every element of its infrastructure.

The plan is only a little less painful than the one he and Metro board chairman Jack Evans floated in March, when they discussed the possibility of shutting whole lines for six months or more. Even scaled back, the plan has businesses, regional governments and commuters bracing for huge disruptions.

Metro trains with passengers sent into tunnels to investigate reports of smoke?

Some riders greeted Friday’s announcement with disgust, others with resignation, and some were grudgingly pleased that Metro is at last doing critical work that had been neglected for years.

“I really feel that they gotta do what they gotta do,” said Darin Barbour, 51, a kitchen manager who lives in District Heights. “A lot of maintenance wasn’t getting done. I’m just thankful this new guy came in here and he’s shutting it down — and it’s inconveniencing people —  but it’s the only way to ensure safety. And I agree with it.”

Some think Metro should slash fares because of the inconvenience that’s on its way.

“That would be a great idea,” said Fana Chisolm, 56, a chef at the National Archives who has to wake at 3:30 a.m. to arrive at work on time. She may just drive now. Her suggestion? “Make the weekends free or something.”

Go ahead, Metro: Shut down an entire line if that’s what it takes

But others said that slashing fares now would only make matters worse for a transit system that’s always been starved for funds — especially now that already declining ridership levels are almost sure to fall more.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” said Sean Richey, 51, a budget analyst at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who lives in Falls Church. “They’re looking for government subsidies. It may not be fair, but it has to be done.”

No doubt the only city dwellers who greeted the news with joy were the people in San Francisco who run Uber: many Metro riders said they expect the ride-sharing service, along with competitors such as Lyft and Split, will do just fine picking up Metro’s slack on weekends.

Metro first experimented with after-midnight service in November 1999 to allow people to linger after dinner and juice the city’s bar-hopping scene. It was the first time Metro extended hours since 1978.  Under SafeTrack, however, Metro’s moratorium on extended hours and midnight closings on Friday and Saturday will begin June 3.

That was a downer for the staff at Alero Restaurant, where a heavy rain was washing away colorful debris from its Cinco de Mayo party the night before.

“I don’t think it can be good for our business,” said Henry Maradiaga, Alero’s manager. “Most of our customers come here and leave [via Metro], and we close at 2 a.m. And there’s no space for parking.”

But the other thing that’s going to take a hit besides the till at the bar could be civic pride.

“Traditionally, Washington’s not known as a 24-hour city,” Ali, the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl, said. “The extended hours got us closer to a city that has a vibrant and late-night life. . . because we’re billing Washington as a world class city. A world class city has world class transit.”