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HOV restrictions likely to stay during Metro repairs

DULLES, Va. — Virginia commuter lane rules will likely remain in force during Metro’s yearlong maintenance project, which will result in significant service reductions and shut down stretches of the rail system for weeks at a time.

Virginia Department of Transportation staff are carefully coordinating the planned Metro repairs with major road construction projects that will add new stretches of express lanes to Interstates 66, 95 and 395, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said on Wednesday.

“We don’t want to add to any of the burden that may be on the commuters and travelers by having both rail and roadways torn up at the same time,” Layne said.

Most of Metro’s planned shutdowns and track-sharing between June and next May would be completed before the express lane construction would begin. Metro ridership is expected to drop off during the repairs as riders swap the rails for their cars, increasing traffic on the region’s already congested roads.

Although Virginia will monitor the situation on the roads, Layne said he leans toward keeping high-occupancy vehicle lane rules in place to encourage more carpooling and bus trips. Opening up the HOV lanes to all traffic could lead to more cars on the state’s roads and only worsen traffic congestion, he said.

“That’ll fill up quickly and then we’ll still have gridlock,” Layne said. “The fact of the matter is there’s just not enough pavement to take everybody without getting the transit, carpooling, slugging, all those things (involved).”

Maryland’s State Highway Administration said no final decision has been made about HOV rules on Maryland roads such as Interstate 270 and U.S. 50.

However, the agency will encourage commuters to carpool or take buses from more distant suburbs of Frederick, Gaithersburg or Rockville, said Charlie Gischlar with the State Highway Administration.

Layne lauded Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s track work plan and renewed focus on safety and operations. Layne said it was the first time he has seen Metro take responsibility.

“Now it’s just making sure we’re executing it right and all the players instead of acting emotionally, really (find) what’s the right plan, getting behind it,” Layne said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be some inconvenience.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said this week that the entire Metrorail system might need to be shut down because rail controllers and others have failed to put safety first.

“We respect Secretary Foxx’s opinions and look to want to work with him as we fix this,” Layne said Wednesday. “Safety has got to be No. 1. But certainly if the system is closed down, if it’s that bad, it’s going to be a big burden on the community.”

The federal government is able to withhold some funding from Metro if the transit agency does not adequately address safety problems.

“But the issue is it may require more funding to get this right,” Layne said. “Obviously Metro’s got to demonstrate that they are good stewards and are doing the right thing.”

He adds: “I think it’s a very fair question to say what’s different from the last time they said they were going to do this and nothing happened, so I understand the credibility (issue).”

The Federal Transit Administration is now providing independent oversight to ensure that the Metrorail system is safe for riders. But Metro is still responsible for making the changes and repairs recommended by federal inspectors.

Maryland, Virginia and the District also receive reports on Metro safety and other issues, but generally after the fact.

“By the time we see them, it’s reactive, not proactive. And I think what Paul is doing is proactive. And I think, unfortunately, it’s going to be painful, because it’s what we should have been doing for the last several decades,” Layne said. “We’re now trying to catch up.”

“I hope a year is enough to do it in, but we were told that before. I think it’s going to be continual. I don’t think the process that they did in the past is going to be acceptable,” he said.

Metro expects to finalize its major track work plan later this month. The repairs are slated to begin in early June on the Blue Line. Five complete track shutdowns are proposed throughout the year. One of the most significant would be the closure of the Red Line between NoMa and Fort Totten from Oct. 9 to Nov. 2 under the plan Wiedefeld released last week.

Layne said he believes there should still be a focus on power upgrades and an extension to eight-car trains throughout the system to address overcrowding on trains and platforms — an ongoing safety concern.

“If you don’t add capacity in some places, you’re not going to alleviate the safety issues at the stations,” Layne said, calling it a chicken-and-egg problem.

But no significant expansion of the system is likely until Metro can provide safe and reliable service, Layne said.

“I don’t want to ever say never, but clearly we’ve got to get integrity in the current operations before that’s considered, we’re all in agreement on that,” he said.

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