Overshadowed by all the budget and management controversy swirling around the operations of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, is a recent success story that has gone unnoticed. Maybe because it's a double-edge sword to WMATA.
Last October a crowd of Metro and public officials gathered at the Huntington Station, the southern terminus of the Yellow Line, to inaugurate a new state of the art Automatic Public Toilet (APT]). It was, and is, a prototype that could solve the ongoing battle of between two opposing forces — the need for security and the call of mother nature.
Being outside any critical area of Metro operations, it appears it does not pose a threat to the line's security. And being totally automatic, it calls for only minimum human maintenance and attention.
It was installed on a trial basis to test its use by Metro riders. The supposition being that if it achieved a use of 100 riders per week it would be deemed a success. The statistical test period was to be one year.
Now, just eight months later, those statistics were presented to WMATA's Operations and Safety Committee at a meeting in late April. The use has exceeded all expectations.
At the high point, use reached 95 passengers per day and at the least it was nearly 80 per day. That calculates to a high of nearly 665 users per week and a low of nearly 560 per week.
But beyond all the data is the real success story of the APT. It can be used without asking permission of the station manager — a big plus to the human psyche. It is also very visible to all riders thereby precluding the need for signage or involvement of Metro personnel.
IT HAS BEEN so successful that the natural reaction has been to install it at other Metro stations. Particularly those where no usage is permitted, regardless of availability or permission, due to permanent security concerns.
According to WMATA the existing restrooms at the Addison Road, Rhode Island Avenue, Vienna, Arlington Cemetery and Pentagon stations will never be opened to the public "because they are located too close to critical equipment." These would seem to be the perfect locations for other APT's.
The APT is not cheap. Total cost for the unit at Huntington Station came to $109,000. That included $39,000 per year for leasing from the manufacturer, Exeloo; and $55,000 for site renovation which included water, sewer and electrical. And there is a $14,000 per year maintenance expense.
Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman, who was instrumental in securing the unit's installation at Huntington, and a member of WMATA's O&S Committee had suggested the possibility of moving the Huntington APT to Vienna where there have been a large number of requests for restroom facilities.
"Vienna, where we are getting the largest number of complaints, passengers are asking for restroom service because the existing ones there can never be opened due to security reasons. My question to staff [WMATA] was 'what would it cost to move and install the Huntington APT to Vienna,'" Kauffman acknowledged.
"But I don't see that happening anytime soon because of the costs involved. Those costs also preclude another unit being installed in Vienna in the near future," he explained.
Huntington, like nearly all Metro stations, does have restrooms that can be accessed by the public upon request in "emergency situations." When Metro was originally constructed, public restrooms were not part of design. Those constructed were designed and located for employee use only, according to officials.
ACCESSIBILITY TO existing Metro restrooms has been seesawing since 9/11 based on the level of alerts issued not only by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security but also by Metro security itself. Just prior to the April O&S Committee meeting a restroom "lockdown" was ordered based on security concerns.
When questioned about this Kauffman responded, "This is a temporary closure, not permanent. As we change through different security levels, the policy will change."
Robert Brubaker, executive director, Metroped, and long-time advocate/activist for opening Metro restrooms, questioned the rationale behind the latest alert closure.
"Basically, there saying someone could put a bomb back there. There wasn't a vote on this [latest restroom closure] Polly Hanson just decided to do it based on news reports of potential threats," Brubaker said. Polly L. Hanson is Chief of Metro Transit Police Department.
Brubaker has claimed, "If Polly Hanson is reading the newspaper and reads about a potential threat she can decide to close the restrooms for 30 days. It's never really going to end."
Conversely, Kauffman, in defense of Hansen, pointed out, "Her flexibility enabled us to get the restrooms open in the first place. I don't want to be the one to insist the restrooms be open and then that be the place a bomb goes off."
Since the controversy first boiled over last fall WMATA has instituted new procedures to aid passengers in utilizing existing restroom facilities at all stations, except those permanently off limits. Those procedures consists of:
*Individual men's and women's restroom will be converted to customer restrooms as well as for employees;
*Signs will be posted at the kiosks notifying customers of restroom availability;
*The revised operating procedure will be posted by the door leading to the restroom entrance;
*Customers requesting restroom use will be escorted to the locked Ancillary Door leading to the restroom entrance.
STATION MANAGERS retain the right to refuse restroom use only if, "in their sole discretion," one of the following criteria are met, according to WMATA:
*Station manager's personal safety is at risk;
*There is an ongoing emergency in the station, on a train, or in the right-of-way requiring their immediate attention.
Of all the reasons given by station managers in refusing use of the restrooms to customers making requests, the highest, 63 percent, was based on "out of service due to unusable/unsanitary conditions," according to WMATA. A police situation accounted for only seven percent.
As of the April O&S Committee meeting, WMATA concluded, "Restroom initiatives have been implemented successfully" with minimal cost and crime. The next step is how to expand installation of other APT's given the budgetary constraints.
As Kauffman stated at the APT dedication last October, "This new facility gives our customers yet another reason to take Metro in comfort and confidence. I look forward to seeing many seniors, parents with small children and others utilizing this facility."