The Metro board voted 7 to 1 Thursday to keep the system’s operating hours, rebuffing D.C. officials who had pushed for a return to late-night service.
In an expeditious vote without debate, the board approved the extension of Metro’s 11:30 p.m. weeknight and 1 a.m. weekend closings. The deal appeared to have been sorted out during an executive session before the board meeting.
Board member Corbett A. Price, who represents the District, cast the lone vote against the measure, saying he did so at the direction of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who appointed him.
“It was a vote that hopefully we could have stopped this,” Price said. Bowser “had provided me instructions, which I concur with, that we have to return to the hours. We have a population of approximately 700,000 people in D.C. and I think we’ve sacrificed enough with these modified hours.”
Board Chairman Jack Evans had also said he would vote no, signaling the District would exercise a rare veto to block Metro’s authorization for another year of earlier closings to perform preventive maintenance.
Evans said his vote to maintain the hours simply reflected the realities of the system. Metro management had argued that the system is still catching up on a backlog of deferred maintenance that culminated in the transit system’s safety crisis in 2015, followed by the year-long SafeTrack program and a preventive maintenance program launched in 2017.
“I don’t know if it’s something that convinced me,” Evans said. “I just recognize the state of our system.”
Bowser’s office was pointed in expressing its disappointment. The city had argued that the shortened hours are hurting late-night service and restaurant workers who in many cases have no other option but public transit. The early closing also impacts entertainment, restaurants and nightlife, the city said.
“It appears that the General Manager and Metro Board want us to accept a suburban commuter rail system catering to white-collar workers,” Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, said in a statement. “With scant evidence of these shortened weekday hours improving maintenance execution, the Board took a pass on holding the General Manager accountable for the efficient delivery of services. There’s been no bigger supporter of dedicated funding for Metro’s safety, reliability and capacity than the District, but our increased investment is not a blank check and should mean a return of late night Metro.”
Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member, said some positive outcomes arose from the at-times contentious debate. In letters and statements, the region’s four U.S. senators and elected officials in Maryland and Virginia have all stressed the need for Metro to maintain significant work programs to ensure the safety of the system. The pressure from officials comes on the heels of the historic funding agreement between the District, Maryland and Virginia to provide the transit agency with $500 million a year in dedicated funding.
To Evans, the vote was a signal of the board’s support for the agency’s agenda, meaning if additional funding and resources are required to achieve those ends, “I have letters from all of them.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld told reporters he wasn’t surprised by the turnaround or the swift vote, which means the shorter hours remain in effect at least one more year.
“It was a tough issue and we all want to be in the same place,” Wiedefeld said. “We all want more service, and we want to get there as quick as we can, but we want to make sure it’s safe.”
Wiedefeld was noncommittal on the subject of whether the shorter hours would remain in place for only one more year. He said it would depend on a variety of factors, including performance benchmarks set by staff members and oversight from the Metrorail Safety Commission, which is set to be certified by April.
The Federal Transit Administration had warned that up to $1.6 billion in federal transit funding for the District, Maryland and Virginia could be withheld if Metro resumed its late-night service, saying that doing so would potentially delay the certification process for the safety oversight commission. FTA said the funding would have been imperiled because it would have to shift resources from the certification process to reviewing budget allotments to verify that Metro properly aligned to safety needs under the new hours.
An FTA spokesman said Thursday that the Metrorail Safety Commission approval process “is proceeding according to plan.”
“If the process continues to remain on schedule, the [Metrorail Safety Commission] will attain certification of its State Safety Program by the April 15, deadline,” the spokesman said.
Wiedefeld said the agency is relying more on technology, using data differently, and becoming more efficient in using maintenance time more efficiently.
“I can tell you we’re making progress,” he said. “Every day we go out there, we get smarter and better at doing this.”
Bowser, who has questioned whether Metro is using its time effectively, argues that the agency has failed to demonstrate the progress it claims to have made.
'“I find it very curious that there has been very little discussion, debate, questioning, probing about why Metro hasn’t been more efficient with the time and resources that it has,” Bowser said Tuesday. “We have to demand that. We can’t have a system that has demanded more money and has gotten more money and has refused to work more efficiently.”
She demanded an end to the early closings or a firm date when Metro could return to late-night service.
Wiedefeld, however, was uncertain, when 3 a.m. closings could return — if at all.
“I definitely know that we can get back to midnight [on weekdays], for instance” Wiedefeld said. “I think that’s definitely within reach. I think we can do some things on the weekend. Whether to get to 3 o’clock that’s difficult because that does squeeze out that window of work, and that’s where we were. That’s a little more difficult. But, again, let’s get the data to support it. That’s how we should drive it.”
The District had pushed for a return to 3 a.m. weekend and midnight weekday closings, but Metro argued that such a shift would shrink overnight maintenance windows so as to render them inefficient because the time would allow for too little work to be performed.
Late last week, a potential compromise emerged: D.C. officials were set to propose a schedule of 5:30 a.m. to midnight weekdays, compared with the current schedule of 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. The system would close at 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. But the compromise fell apart amid opposition from Maryland officials who worried about the impact to endpoint stations such as Glenmont and Shady Grove, where a large share of their residents use the trains to commute to work in the District.
Metro board member Christian Dorsey, who represents Virginia, said the board’s eventual decision reflected sound consideration of the arguments made by Metro management.
“We’re all working together,” he said, adding of Evans: “I think he recognizes that the alternative was certainly disastrous so we needed to do what is right for the system. I applaud him for it.”
Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.