DC-Area Transit Chief Lays Out Repair Plan That Promises a Year of Travel Disruptions
WASHINGTON, DC Trying to get on top of decades of deferred maintenance that now threatens subway riders' safety in and around the nation's capital region, the head of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority proposed a tough rebuilding plan that would disrupt transportation system over the coming year.
That plan, dubbed SafeTrack, would involve 15 separate "surge" projects to have work crews repairing specific rail transit segments up to weeks at a time.
The long-anticipated plan would put unprecedented strains on the transit-reliant workforce serving Congress, federal agencies, trade associations, hotels and any number of other businesses in the area. It could also disrupt tourism that helps support the capital area's economy across D.C. and suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.
The plan promised to put many subway-riding commuters onto already heavily congested roadways, while perhaps testing work-from-home technologies and agency policies.
Local officials and members of Congress generally said the plan would have a large impact on travel in the area, but that it appeared to be necessary to address crippling maintenance investment needs for a transit system where delay- and breakdown-plagued subway rides are a frequent occurrence.
Some observers said beyond Metro's problems in handling its safety and maintenance needs, many transit agencies around the nation suffer from deteriorating infrastructure and equipment that requires enormous expense and effort to upgrade while maintaining transit operations.
In Metro's case, the long shutdowns and periods of slow trains would also worsen its financial outlook by cutting ridership and farebox receipts while it tries to compress three years of maintenance projects into one.
WMATA General Manager Paul Weidefeld had been warning that such a program might be needed, ever since he ordered a sudden, system-wide closure March 16 of the Metrorail subway to try fix electrical problems that caused a spate of fires and releases of smoke in railway tunnels. That midweek closure, announced only the prior afternoon, effectively shut down the government and other offices.
Yet even as the region was trying to absorb the impact of the new work plan announcement from Weidefeld, federal regulators were considering whether to order a closure of Metrorail after finding that Metro employees did not adequately respond to an explosive track fire inside a downtown D.C. rail station.
After seeing video of that May 5 fire - one of two smoke-producing incidents that day at the same station before Metro finally closed that track segment for repairs - the Federal Transit Administration's acting administrator, Carolyn Flowers, issued a May 7 safety directive ordering WMATA "to take urgent action to address persistent safety findings with personnel response to safety risks."
In particular, Flowers said the transit operation "must take actions to reduce fire and smoke risks" regardless of "operational convenience." She also directed that "these actions must include mitigations such as reduction in number of railcars on trains, speed reductions and other methods to lessen the power load in known high-risk areas."
The final paragraph of her four-page directive warned that any violation of it could lead the FTA to withhold federal funds to WMATA and ordering closures or prohibitions on service to address unsafe conditions.
Later, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters he considered closing the capital's subway system after seeing the "scary video" of that arc fire and explosion, and learning that Metro's operating officials blocked federal inspectors from viewing the damage for several hours.
Foxx also said the planned SafeTrack work problem would not be sufficient to correct recurring smoke and electrical problems, such as the May 5 incident and another in 2015 that killed one passenger.
The FTA ordered Metro to begin immediate maintenance repairs on three track segments to deal with fire risks, saying the work could not wait for their turn in the proposed SafeTrack program. Flowers also said that in some cases federal inspectors will monitor the repairs while they are in progress.
The FTA order reportedly triggered negotiations between that agency and WMATA over how the transit operator could change its complex work plan and reprioritize the projects the FTA listed.