Va., feds vow to block Metro hours expansion; DC to reconsider position

WASHINGTON — Virginia Metro Board members threatened Thursday to block any expansion of Metro’s current hours, with Maryland and federal board members and the Federal Transit Administration supporting their concerns about costs and maintenance impacts.

It raises questions about whether even the modest return of hours — which Metro staff seemed willing to accept during a presentation as a concession to D.C. Metro Board members — could be adopted this year.

“Getting the system in a state of good repair is paramount, and I think extending the hours, at this point in time, could harm that,” Virginia Metro Board member Paul Smedberg said.

Next week, the District plans to reconsider its insistence on expanding hours after a discussion between the mayor and D.C. Council, and it could have a new position within a week or two, Metro Board Chairman and D.C. Council member Jack Evans said.

The costs of extending hours — even at just $4 million a year for an additional hour or so of service each Friday, Saturday and Sunday — would also be too much for local governments already stretched thin, Smedberg said.

Metro could reconsider hours in a year or two, Smedberg offered.

If hours do not change, Metro would support subsidized Uber, Lyft or cab rides for late-night workers in places like bars and restaurants who register for them, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said. The program would be similar to Commuter Connections’ Guaranteed Ride Home.

Arlington’s Christian Dorsey supported that idea as a more-efficient use of money than extending hours. Because track work and hours cuts have already driven down ridership, Metro estimates the limited-service expansion would add 600,000 trips per year.

“[If] we gave each of those individuals $10 for that trip, that’s $6 million, and we’re looking at alternatives that are far less efficient,” Dorsey said.

D.C.’s Evans said that he understands the need for track time and the financial concerns — particularly given the ongoing federal shutdown — but that the patience of people waiting on a return to late-night hours has run out.

“I can make the argument on both sides,” Evans said. “None of these are easy options, but I have to say the sentiment in the District … is to go back to the late hours,” he said.

In a letter dated Jan. 18 but made public at Thursday’s Metro committee meetings, the Federal Transit Administration warned against that move.

Any reduction in track time reserved for maintenance would endanger approvals for plans to address maintenance problems identified by federal inspectors, including some approvals that had already been granted, the FTA said.The letter also warned that any changes to hours could delay approval of federal funding for the upcoming budget year, and could distract limited FTA staff from formal certification of the new Metrorail Safety Commission.

The commission separately warned last month against a wholesale return to pre-2016 hours of 3 a.m. closings Friday and Saturday nights, midnight closings other nights, and 7 a.m. openings Sundays.

The Metro Board must take some action on hours within the next two months, because the resolution that set the current hours is due to expire at the end of June. The current budget proposal, due to be adopted in March, assumes current hours remain in place.

Federal Metro Board member Steve McMillin said he was “troubled” by the situation.

“I think it’s very irresponsible that we’re on a path now where the no-action scenario is this nightmare of going back to the bad old days of letting this system rot and then telling the financial folks, you know, ‘Figure it out,'” he said.

“At the dentist, they tell you, ‘You don’t have to floss all your teeth; just the ones you want to keep.’ We have not been flossing and brushing this system for years,” he added.

Wiedefeld and Metro staff believe the additional maintenance programs they have put in place over the last two years have the system on the right track.

He recommended keeping current hours for at least one more year before any consideration of changes.

“There’s a lot more work to be done … but we’re also sensitive to the desires of the region,” Wiedefeld said.

“I think this is a larger discussion about the role rail plays in the overall image of the region and of the District,” he said.

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