Metro’s year-long plan to fix the crumbling system was received Friday with mixed-feelings, many questions and lots of skepticism about how such a major undertaking could successfully work in a region where hundreds of thousands of people depend on the the system to get around.
Many of the region’s public officials are calling the “SafeTrack” plan a “bold” and “serious” move to address Metro’s serious safety and service problems, and are calling on local, state, and federal governments to rally behind Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, acknowledging that the impact will be painful for all. Riders and Metro critics, meanwhile took to the Twitterverse with their own ideas, calling for fare reductions, increases to bus service and a robust outreach campaign that leaves no one in the dark about service changes.
The plan will only work if Metro gives riders sufficient advance notice of shutdowns and provides travel alternatives, they say.
The repair plan to begin next month consists of 15 major projects, including five full shutdowns and extensive single-tracking.
Here’s what some of the region’s leaders and riders are saying.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth, a group that advocates for greater transit services called the plan “a major challenge” that will require the community, riders and Metro working together.
We’ll need expanded bus service, telecommuting, flex-time, and carpooling, especially for longer distance commuters. For those living closer to work, bicycling, bikeshare and walking will be important additional options.
The management and staff at WMATA owe the public a real turnaround in their performance in communications, maintenance, repair, operations and above all safety. And we should use this as a time to increase transit funding, expand our bus fleet, provide the dedicated bus lanes we have long needed, and expand the opportunities for bicycling and telecommuting.
“As a community and as Metro riders, we need to work together with the GM and the agency to get the job done,” Stewart Schwartz, the coalition’s executive director said. “We need the ‘roll up the sleeves attitude’ of Americans who’ve worked together after major natural disasters or mobilized for war.”
Some riders say they support the effort, but with some reservations.
Dawn Keeler, a nurse living in Falls Church, Va., said she stands behind Wiedefeld and the plan, provided Metrobuses can suitably replace the lost service.
“There has been so much neglect and abandon of this system for so long,” said Keeler, who rides Metro from East Falls Church to NoMa during the week. “I think this is a great idea. It’s necessary. We have to support this guy — even if it’s inconvenient — because it’s a safety issue.”
Members of the region’s Congressional delegation said regional unity is a must to face the challenge and are calling on riders to be patient while the work is done.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, urged the region to give Metro “the support and flexibility needed to get the work done.”
Make no mistake, the ‘Safe Track’ plan unveiled today is going to be painful, and the severity of the remedy to what ails Metro is directly attributable to years of neglectful decisions and a failure to confront problems earlier. The losses in time, money and output will underscore just how important Metrorail is to both the federal government and Washington region, and will illustrate why Metro’s culture of safety and physical infrastructure should never have been allowed to erode to the crisis point we have reached today.
But I believe that WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld understands the enormous impact that this plan will have on the daily lives of so many people, and would not be taking these steps unless he thought they were absolutely necessary to protect and properly serve Metro’s riders. I encourage WMATA leadership to continue working with federal experts on necessary improvements and upgrades, and to take every step possible to minimize the disruption to the daily lives of Washington-area commuters. I also encourage the state, local and federal government to give WMATA the support and flexibility needed to get the work done.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said the ambitious plan “is indeed painful medicine,” but underscores the severity of Metro’s problems.
Just last night service along a stretch of the Orange/Blue/Silver Lines was suspended during the evening rush hour due to another electrical arcing incident. Such scary events are becoming all too frequent. The frustration didn’t end there as today’s morning commute was once again fouled for thousands of riders due to train malfunctions and track signal problems.
This has been a decades-long march into mediocrity and dysfunction, and we must steady Metro from reeling from crisis to crisis and get it back on track.
I ask the region’s riders and businesses that rely on Metro each day for their patience in adjusting our daily lives and routines while these urgent repairs are made, but that goodwill must be rewarded. Metro and its partners must deliver. This will require the local, state, and federal governments to coordinate with Metro to mitigate the effects of this work and to provide commuter alternatives in the short term, and it will require the region to collectively consider how we adequately fund Metro for the long-term to prevent such challenges from arising again.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) said she plans to question Metro’s plan at a hearing this month, saying she wonders whether the one-year period will be enough “to reach acceptable safety standards” outlined by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration.
The announcement today should lay to rest the dispute that emerged during the NTSB’s hearing on whether the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) or the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) should be tasked with conducting direct safety oversight over WMATA. Congress, through MAP-21 and the FAST Act, authorized FTA to assume direct safety oversight of a transit system if the State Safety Oversight Agency is unable to do so. Thus, FTA has a mandate from Congress, and as a practical matter is the only actor capable of quickly taking on safety oversight of WMATA while General Manager Wiedefeld embarks on the unprecedented rehabilitation of the system.
While the safety overhaul is being conducted, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia must not lose focus on the separate issue of establishing an independent State Safety Oversight Agency. Apparently, the D.C. Department of Transportation is working with the Virginia and Maryland Departments of Transportation to submit the necessary legislation to the D.C. Council this fall. Maryland and Virginia authorities must be ready to submit legislation in January 2017 so that a State Safety Oversight Agency can be up and running by the middle of 2017, coinciding with the conclusion of the one-year safety campaign.
Sharon Bulova (D), chairmwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said the county is looking for ways to realign its bus service and communicate with Fairfax residents about the coming service disruptions.
It’s important that we do what we need to do to shore up our Metro system. Fairfax County is standing ready to assist in any way that we can,” Bulova said. “People take the Metro first of all because it may be convenient to them, but some take the Metro because they need to – because they don’t drive or can’t drive. Providing alternatives to those people is something we need to try to work out.
People take the Metro first of all because it may be convenient to them, but some take the Metro because they need to – because they don’t drive or can’t drive. Providing alternatives to those people is something we need to try to work out..
Montgomery County Executive Isiah “Ike” Leggett (D) said the plan would add a great deal of hardship, especially in Bethesda, Rockville and Chevy Chase, where rush-hour congestion is already severe, and that it was vital that Metro’s plan solve the problems in the long run.
This is a great deal of inconvenience to go through. My only reaction is, once we’ve gone through this, will it do what’s necessary to get us back on track. It’s an awful lot to ask.
If the challenges of safety and maintenance overall were not resolved at the end of this process, that would be a huge blow. We would have a problem of credibility that would be very difficult to ever repair.
Leggett said Montgomery would add buses, make changes in traffic lanes and adjust signals to deal with the impact, but traffic congestion is so bad already that it’s difficult to make up for the reduced Metro service.
“You’ll be putting buses into traffic that already cannot move,” Leggett said. “In an area that is already congested, it will have only a limited effect.”
Malcolm Augustine, who represents Prince George’s County as an alternate member on Metro’s governing board, said he is particularly concerned about the total shutdown of the Orange Line between Eastern Market and Benning Road for more than two weeks from Aug. 20 to Sept. 6. That will disrupt service for people traveling between the District and six stations in Prince George’s.
The work of getting people around that is going to require obviously a significant amount of planning and consideration and coordination…It’s the right call to give people a significant amount of time to prepare for that.
It’s the type of bold move that’s needed after so much time of letting the system deteriorate. But it’s definitely going to be hard times that we’re going to have to work through.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said it would work to add travel alternatives for commuters through its Commuter Connections program while portions of the Metro system undergo the intensive work. The site offers resources and information on carpooling, vanpooling, commuter rail, bus, telework, bicycling, and walking.
The COG’s chairman Roger Berliner, said Wiedefeld’s decision signals bold leadership to address Metro growing safety and reliability issues.
General Manager Wiedefeld’s draft plan to comprehensively address Metro’s core issues of safety and reliability over the course of the next 12 months is ‘tough medicine’ for tough times. The entire region has suffered because of the failure over many, many years to make the hard decisions necessary to maintain the system. The consequences of inaction are now crystal clear. As a result, our regional leaders have asked the new WMATA leadership team, led by the General Manager, to do what is necessary to fix it. Mr. Wiedefeld is answering that call with a 12 month plan to provide safe and reliable service.
“Executing this plan will not be easy. There is no question that single tracking will seriously inconvenience many already-frustrated riders. But stretching this work out over many years would create more serious impacts for riders and the region. The safety issues we are experiencing today would worsen while we wait. Our local governments and the federal government must work together to provide interim adjustments, such as additional buses, telecommuting, and other measures. The vitality of our region depends on our working together to support Metro’s efforts to provide safe and reliable service.
Still some riders and advocates for workers worry about the impact on commuters, particularly those who aren’t able to find alternative modes of transportation or can’t afford other options such as Uber or Lyft.
The plan would add a great deal of hardship on workers in the service industry, many who staff restaurants and hotels and clean office buildings and depend on Metro to get to shifts at odds hours, labor leaders say. They say they hope a robust outreach campaign would go beyond social media and reach segments of the region’s labor force, including Spanish-speaking workers, not in tune with Twitterverse.
“This is going to have a major negative impact on these workers,” said Jaime Contreras, head of the SEIU 32BJ, which represents 18,000 workers in the Metro region, including cleaners and security officers and is organizing airport employees.
The weeknight and weekend shutdowns are particularly troubling for the lower-wage workers who go home hours after most white-collar workers have settled in their homes. Many of them commute from the outer suburbs via Metro, can’t afford to drive or ride alternative modes of transit such as Uber or Lyft. In previous service disruptions, including the recent weather-related shutdowns of the system, many of these workers have been left stranded, unaware of the changes.
“My hope is that Metro will do an extra effort to reach out, and let people know what to expect early so they don’t find out about the service changes on the day of,” Contreras said, urging that extra efforts are made to reach out to the non-English speakers in the service industry. “As long as they do this, people should be able to plan ahead and how to get in and from work.”
“At the end of the day these problems need to get fixed so people don’t have to deal with these messes, but it’s important that Metro do the extra outreach,” he said. “It is going to be a little bit painful for a period of time, but I think people understand that we need to fix these problems once and for all.”
And if you missed it, SafeTrack even got some reaction from the White House. President Obama, answering questions from reporters on Friday, called the Washington Metro’s problems “one more example of the under investments that have been made.”
“The D.C. Metro historically has been a great strength of this region, but overtime we under-invested in maintenance and repair,” he said. “Obviously safety comes first and we want to make sure that if there are safety concerns that they are addressed.”
Faiz Siddiqui and Robert McCartney contributed to this report.
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