“TOUGH MEDICINE” was the characterization Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld used in announcing a subway rebuilding program that will cause massive disruptions over the next year. “We have to take it,” he said Friday in unveiling the ambitious plans. “And the sooner we take it, the better we’re all going to be.”
Washington commuters really have no choice. They will have to go along. They will have to swallow the inconveniences and hardships to their lives, jobs and businesses. And, like Charlie Brown with Lucy and the football, they will hope that this time will be different; that their trust will not be betrayed and Metro might actually keep its promise to fix the system.
Starting next month, Metro will undertake a major overhaul of the 40-year-old rail system. Dubbed “SafeTrack,” the unprecedented rebuilding effort will include 15 separate large-scale work projects aimed at replacing, repairing or refurbishing the crumbling infrastructure that resulted from decades of neglected maintenance. Portions of rail lines will be shut down for extended periods of time and single-tracking will result in reduced and delayed train service. There is no overstating the impact. Not only will those who use Metro be affected, but also there will be spillover — on area roadways that will get more congested, buses that will be more crowded and government offices and businesses that will have to adjust work routines.
We are taking Mr. Wiedefeld at his word that the drastic curtailment of service is not only necessary for safety reasons, but also that it will allow work that normally would take three years to be completed in a year’s time. Still, as Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) put it, “this is a great deal of inconvenience to go through.” He added, “My only reaction is, once we’ve gone through this, will it do what’s necessary to get us back on track?” Good question: Metro riders who have had to put up with the single-tracking and other service indignities of previous — and apparently worthless — rebuilding plans can relate to Mr. Leggett’s skepticism.
It will be important for local officials to work cooperatively to try to ease the disruption. So it was encouraging to hear officials on Friday talk about planning to add buses and adjust travel lanes and road signals to deal with the anticipated increase in traffic. Special attention needs to be paid to the needs of low-income workers without a car to fall back on or the luxury of being able to call an Uber. It’s also important that Metro, not known for its ability to share information, offer ample public warnings of impending disruptions, along with a clear timetable that allows riders to monitor promised progress day by day. Federal transportation officials with oversight of Metro must also closely monitor the work.
Assuming that the repair work is done well and on time, it will be important to heed Mr. Wiedefeld’s warning against backsliding on future maintenance. That means Virginia, Maryland and the District must finally create a safety oversight body and, equally important, devise a stable and continuing source of revenue for Metro.