It's frustrating but necessary.
From elected officials to Metro riders just passing through, this has been the response to the long-awaited plan to fix the Washington Metro. The plan comes after years of delays and safety hazards, including the death of Alexandria woman Carol Glover in a fire in early 2015. The plan, released by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) includes numerous scheduled delays and closures throughout the rest of 2016 to fix the broken rail system.
“I wish this didn't have to happen, but it does.”
— Christian Dorsey, member, Arlington County Board and WMATA Board of Directors
Sporadically throughout the summer, the Blue and Yellow lines will be single tracking, with portions on the Virginia side closed for two weeks in July. At the end of August, large portions of the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines will be closed for 16 days. This will be followed be single tracking throughout Arlington for the duration of November. For nearly the entire month of December, Rosslyn and Pentagon stations will be closed. Single tracking on the Blue, Yellow and Orange lines will continue until March next year.
The repairs also will have broader secondary effects. Starting in June, the Metro will close at midnight rather than the usual 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The Metro will also not be running extended hours for special events.
“It’s a big inconvenience for Metro riders,” said County Board member Christian Dorsey, who represents Arlington on the WMATA board of directors. “Closing Rosslyn for three weeks in December is going to be a big deal. It’s going to be a major change.”
But like many in the capital region, Dorsey says the changes are a better alternative than the continued metro woes.
“It’s necessary,” said Dorsey. “I wish this didn’t have to happen, but it does. Arlington is intertwined with the health of Metro. Now, the top priority is getting this fixed. There’s no greater priority in Arlington than the health of the Metro.”
Emerging on the other side of the repairs, Dorsey said he doesn’t expect a system that won’t ever have problems, but said Metro riders should be able to demand not to have daily breakdowns.
“We should have been repairing this over the last decade,” said Dorsey. “So I want to see what it’s going to take not to fall behind again. I don’t want to see this return in five years.”
Dorsey said it’s also important that the affected jurisdictions get a firm price tag set on the improvements. For County Board Chair Libby Garvey, there also needs to be a system of accountability put into place.
“[The repairs] have got to be done,” said Garvey. “Somebody’s been lying, and we need to hold those people accountable. [Reform] is about more than money. The silver lining here is that we can finally cooperate as a region to focus on transit. We don’t want to waste a crisis.”
Dorsey says Arlington’s plans to compensate for the delays are still in the works.
“We haven’t had a long time to chew over it,” said Dorsey. Saying that the Arlington bus system, as well as WMATA’s buses, will have to serve as a bridge for the closed stations. Financially, Dorsey says there’s a good chance a lot of those improvements will come out of the pockets of Arlingtonians, but how the cost will be broken down between jurisdictions hasn’t been established yet. “It will have a price tag for Arlington, but until we know the full scope, we won’t know how much that is.”
Arlington Deputy Director of Communications Dennis Leach said that the county staff is still reviewing WMATA’s Friday announcement and putting solutions together.
“We’re looking at everything we can for helping Arlington citizens deal with this,” said Leach. Finding solutions, Leach says, is complicated by the fact that each shutdown creates its own sphere of demands. “We have to evaluate each burst of activity individually.”
In an email, Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Leadership at George Mason University, said it will take careful planning for Arlington to navigate the Metro crisis.
“The Metro Safe Track surge program can best be compared in Arlington or Alexandria to a major snowstorm — except with a little more time to anticipate,” Shafroth said in an email. It’s coming; it will bring major uncertainties. “It means that Arlington and Alexandria — especially, need to plan how to mitigate the impact in regard both to their residents — who largely commute out of the county and city, the business and federal government workforce that largely commutes in from other jurisdictions, and their respective county and city own government workforces, who largely commute into the county and city. Each jurisdiction will be forced to think out of the box with regard to traffic and parking management. Because this is such an unanticipated event, they will have to demonstrate signal flexibility; they will have to closely monitor, and — especially — they will have to be flexible and primed to adjust to the impacts as they occur.”
But Shafroth said a lot of questions remain about WMATA’s planning.
“Because there are so many unknowns, each jurisdiction will also have to closely track the fiscal impact on tax revenues and the cost of the surge: this, after all, was not an anticipated event in the adoption of the budget — and, unlike a major storm — it will last much, much longer.
On the trains themselves, riders seemed to have a universal opinion on the delays.
“It seems necessary,” said Andrew Sue-Ako, a rider waiting at the King Street station. “Better that than people dying, assuming all of the disrepair is true.”
“I think it’s necessary,” said Alex Moore, riding the Blue Line. “Conditions have deteriorated, but the timing could hurt. Virginia closures during the summer could impact us young people going out to bars and restaurants in the evening. Summer is the time when you could really get drivers off the road. The timing, relative to the season, could pose a risk.”
Megan Cole, a friend sitting near Moore, says she’s not as frequent of a Metro rider as he is, but the closures don’t make her more likely to ride.
“Van Dorn is my Metro station, and I don’t know what I’m going to do once the closures hit,” said Cole. “I guess I’m just not going into D.C. those days when it’s closed, because I refuse to drive into the city.”
For others, while the repairs are important, there’s other areas the Metro needs to improve. Sandy Nevzil lives in Reston and recently began using the Silver Line to commute to her work in Alexandria. But Nevzil is legally blind.
“It’s frustrating, because the signs don’t always agree with the trains,” said Nevzil. She says the stories about the fire Federal Center scare her, but she’s willing to wait out the delays in hopes the Metro will improve.
At the Rosslyn Station, the platform is packed. NuNu Deng and Samara Stevens are discussing their 20-minute wait for a train during rush hour. Like Nevzil, Stevens says the communications needs to be improved.
“The information online and sent out by [WMATA] can be incorrect,” said Stevens, saying that one day she was told that the Silver Line was closed, but then showed up at a station where it was running. She didn’t get on the train, and when she asked the station manager about it a moment later, she was informed that it had been running that day and the website was incorrect. Sometimes, Stevens says information seems to change depending on which station manager you talk to.
“There’s a lack of communication and consideration,” said Stevens. Once on the train, Stevens said the speakers in each car need to work, and there should be some uniformity to the conductor’s announcements. “We had one conductor announce all of the stations and what the connections were. It made all the difference in our ride.”
Deng and Stevens both noted that it was frustrating to pay full price for a service that’s so broken.
“In L.A., you can get a month of rides for $75,” said Deng. “In D.C., you can spend $100 getting across the city in just one week.”
Still, Metro riders say they’re ready to get through the worst of it if it means having a reliable transit system.
“We want to fix it now before something even worse happens and it becomes an emergency. I just hope they can stick to their timeline,” said Jessica Mallow, riding the Silver Line. “It’s unfortunate that it has to happen so immediately, but from people I’ve talked to, it seems that most are willing to weather the storm.”