The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Eight-month Yellow Line shutdown comes as riders grow weary of waits

Metro, government leaders worry riders will switch to cars or remote work permanently as inconveniences grow

Construction crews put the finishing touches on the renovated Braddock Road Metro station in 2019. Blue and Yellow line stations south of Reagan National Airport were closed that summer for platform and station renovation. Three years later, they will be closed again. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Since returning to in-person work, Rafael Rodriguez has relied on Metro four times a week to take him from his Maryland home to his Pentagon City office.

Metro’s train shortage has created lengthy waits across the system, but Rodriguez said it’s most noticeable when transferring to the Yellow Line.

“The Yellow is just giving me all these headaches, all the time,” he said while standing on a Pentagon City station platform. “If I had to pick, I’d probably move to another workstation closer along the Red Line. These transfers are just toxic.”

For regular Yellow Line users, the delays will become more cumbersome beginning Saturday, when Metro will shut down the line for eight months to repair the aging bridge and tunnel between the Pentagon and L’Enfant Plaza that serves as a crucial Washington-Northern Virginia link. In addition, six stations will shutter for the first six weeks of the shutdown. The delays are the latest that commuters will encounter on a transit system missing more than half of its fleet amid stagnant ridership growth.

Metro will provide free shuttle buses and the Blue Line will still connect riders on both sides of the Potomac River, but such trips will take about 15 minutes longer. Rodriguez, 58, said he plans to drive. Asked if he could foresee making a car his permanent mode of travel, he didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah,” he said. “I do.”

His response is one that worries Metro, which has lost hundreds of thousands of customers to telework, and Virginia business and government leaders, who fear the shutdown could encourage people to stay home or avoid transit, adding congestion to highways with volumes near pre-pandemic levels.

“The timing is truly terrible for people who are making decisions about what their commute is going to look like,” Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol (D) said. “We need to make sure that there is a really attractive, seamless transit option for them so that people are not about to start a driving commute habit.”

Metro’s Yellow Line bridge over Potomac will close for about eight months beginning this fall

Metro officials say they are doing all they can, creating a shuttle bus service to connect riders to rail from the six closed stations south of Reagan National Airport. The service includes local and express buses that will cross the Potomac all day. When the six stations reopen Oct. 23, Metro will route some Blue and Green line trains to them until the Yellow Line project is completed in May.

Metro is seeking to limit onerous commutes elsewhere, recently reopening five Orange Line stations in Maryland and D.C. that had been closed since May for a platform rebuilding project. The agency is also redeploying trains from the Yellow Line into the fleet elsewhere, while a regulatory agency has allowed Metro to increase its usage of suspended 7000-series rail cars.

The changes will allow Metro to double service on the Green Line, shortening average wait times to eight minutes — a decrease of two minutes — while waits on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines will drop from 20 to 15 minutes on weekends.

The Virginia Railway Express commuter rail service is also offering free rides this month systemwide to coincide with the Metro disruption.

Virginia Railway Express to offer free rides during Metro closures

The shutdown could affect about 8,400 riders on weekdays and up to 5,500 on weekends. Metrorail ridership has hovered at about 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels since late March. The loss of commuters has transit officials bracing for an annual operating shortfall of up to $500 million starting as soon as next summer, unless fare revenue increases.

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said lagging ridership partly stems from a train shortage that began after a derailment last October. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission pulled all 748 of Metro’s 7000-series cars from service after a federal investigation uncovered a defect that causes wheels to move outward.

The commission over four months has allowed Metro to slowly phase some cars into service. Earlier this month it allowed the agency to increase its usage from 64 cars to 160, or 20 trains.

Metro gets OK to add more suspended trains with less frequent inspections

Cristol, a former chair of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, said she was “holding out hope” the safety commission would allow Metro to reinstate more of the 7000-series trains by the time the six stations reopen in late October.

The Blue Line across the Potomac will not serve as a meaningful Yellow Line alternative if commuters need to wait 12 to 15 minutes for a train, she said.

Thony Ascencio, 54, a restaurant worker who travels between his Arlington home and workplaces near the Mt. Vernon Square and Gallery Place-Chinatown stations, said every minute counts when he must be on-time for shifts. He said he uses the Yellow Line “every day, all day,” and wasn’t sure of his Saturday plan.

“I have to make a choice,” he said. “Something. Maybe Uber.”

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) empathized with workers, noting his city has only had normal or consistent Metrorail service for about six months over the past three years.

“The timing’s horrible. It’s a time when people are finally getting back into offices,” he said. “Between the shutdown in 2019 and the pandemic and this, it has been a rough time for commuters in this city.”

Metro’s Blue, Yellow line construction will require detours this fall

Alexandria’s four Metro stops are on the Blue and Yellow lines and will be offline through late October.

Metro last closed a line in 2021, when there was no Blue Line service for about three months while platforms were rebuilt at Arlington Cemetery and Addison Road, said Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly. During the project, the Silver Line ran to Largo Town Center while the Yellow Line served the Franconia-Springfield and Van Dorn Street stations.

Metro officials acknowledge the latest project will inconvenience riders, but said the agency is also taking important steps forward during the shutdown to open the new Potomac Yard station.

“We regret the inconvenience but believe customers understand the need to prioritize this safety critical work,” Ly said.

Joe Haggerty, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, said there was no good time to inconvenience commuters with the shutdown — especially as they are returning to office work amid the pandemic — but said the pause in service now is better than more extensive issues in the future.

“Is it going to cause people to stay home more? Yes, until they get things patched up more. If you know your train route and you’re used to getting to your station … it gives you more reason to stay home,” he said.

Covid closed downtown D.C. businesses. Many reopened — in the suburbs.

When it comes to the Alexandria mayor’s own commute, the shutdown will result in a tweak: To get to his day job at Amtrak’s offices in D.C., Wilson said he normally takes the city’s free DASH bus to the Pentagon, then rides Metro’s Yellow and Red lines.

He will now ride the bus to the Blue Line instead.

City and regional officials have learned from the 2019 shutdown about what works, Wilson said, and they are planning to provide options for residents — including shuttles, bike and pedestrian alternatives, and even more service for ferries connecting Old Town and the Wharf.

“We’re throwing absolutely everything we can at this to make sure people can get around,” he said. “Mike Tyson says, ‘Everyone has a battle plan until they get punched in the face.’ We’ll figure out next week what’s working and what’s not working, and hopefully the planning paid off.”