SILVER SPRING, Md. — Acknowledging that the plan could be changed, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Wednesday that additional time for maintenance and inspections on the tracks was the top reason he has proposed significant weekend service cuts.
“This has been a repeated issue that NTSB and FTA and as a region we’ve talked about that we don’t have enough time out there to do the work and do it right, so that’s why I’m proposing it,” he said in his first public comments on the proposal that he plans to officially present to the Metro Board Thursday.
Board members were told shortly before the plans were reported publicly.
“We need to have, obviously, this debate regionally,” Wiedefeld said of the discussion over how to get more track time. Immediately, the proposal sparked outrage from some riders and regional leaders, but support from some others.
“The ridership is extremely low at those periods, roughly about 3,000 on Friday and Saturday, roughly 4,000 on Sunday night. It’s a significant drop over time the last few years,” he added.
That drop in late-night riders has come as Metro has run fewer trains on less predictable schedules with an increase in single tracking or complete weekend shutdowns since the deadly Red Line crash in 2009.
Wiedefeld had already made the temporary change in June to shut the system at midnight instead of 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays as part of the major 24/7 track work plan that began in June. He said he had the authority to do that for up to a year without Metro Board approval. In order to make the change permanent, and to add the 10 p.m. closing on Sundays, Metro will have to hold public hearings this fall before a vote by the board.
District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo is also a Metro Board member, and says the D.C. members are skeptical of the changes given the impact on restaurants and night life.
“From our perspective, this type of action appears premature. We’re certainly very focused on the consequence to small businesses and the working families that support a lot of the establishments within the District and within the region. A lot of service workers, a lot of hotel workers depend on transit,” he said.
“I think it’s going to be a high burden of proof for WMATA to talk through the pros and cons and to talk about what the potential benefit would be on the maintenance side,” Dormsjo said.
The DowntownDC Business Improvement District said in a statement that “the elimination of late-night Metrorail service could halt the transformation DowntownDC has been experiencing over the past 17 years.” Service was extended to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights back in 1999, followed by an extension to 3 a.m. in 2007.
Regional leaders representing more suburban jurisdictions with many rush hour commuters have appeared more open to the plan.
“First and foremost is safety and reliability,” Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner said.
Berliner also leads the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“We need to understand the economic consequences, but know this: the economic consequences of this system not operating in a state of good repair far exceeds what this will cost in the short term, assuming we get to a state of good repair,” Berliner said.
“My hope is that the board honors its fundamental obligation to ensure that this system gets to a state of good repair. That is what is fundamental to the economic future of this region,” he added.
Berliner suggested Metro could add late-night bus service along the rail routes as some other cities have done after the rail system closes for the night.
“Now, does it necessarily need to be permanent? Can it be tweaked? Can there be rolling sections out [of service]? All of that can be discussed. It could be in two to three years we get to a state of good repair and we’re able to then move beyond that,” Berliner said.
Any additional service could be funded through the millions of dollars Metro would save from shutting down the system earlier.
Wiedefeld said the recommendation to close the system earlier is not based on the financial impact.