The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors is poised to vote next week on the general manager’s proposal to reduce the number of hours the Metrorail system operates. The extra eight hours will be used to give management and work crews more time to implement a preventative maintenance program and fix the system.
Here are the specifics. Instead of closing at midnight Sunday through Thursday, the system would close at 11 p.m. Sunday and at 11:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Further, Metro would close at 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday night (actually the following morning) instead of 3 a.m. Finally, the system would open Sunday morning at 8 a.m. instead of the current 7 a.m.
Let me be very clear: I hate the idea of cutting service. I’ve written many times about how public transportation only works when it’s convenient and affordable. I believe Metro is the future of the region, and that future requires Metro to be more than just a commuter rail system, operating 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Late-night service isn’t just about getting customers back and forth to bars, restaurants and events around the region. It’s about providing critical connections between affordable residential areas in Maryland, Virginia and many parts of D.C. and areas offering employment outside of regular office hours. D.C. is no longer a government town where all activity happens during the day and all jobs are performed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entire region has become more dynamic and economically diversified. We need a Metro system that can support this new regional society.
That said, Metro is in a uniquely difficult position at the moment. WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld isn’t just doing the work that needs to be done, he’s raising the sirens on a system and an agency that have long received praise even as many things were crumbling behind the curtain. I support Wiedefeld, and if he says he needs eight more hours to turn the system around, I believe him.
I will support a proposal to increase available maintenance time by eight hours per week, but I plan to offer an amendment limiting the changes to one year. The board has the responsibility to reassess the move a year from now to see if it is working and if it is the best way to fix the system. If the plan is working and continues to be necessary to keep Metro safe and reliable, then the board can extend the reduced span of service. If it isn’t improving the system, then the board must decide how to move forward.
For too long, the WMATA board has either meddled in operational matters — the general manager’s responsibility — or abrogated its role of overseeing the system and representing the riders and the jurisdictions. Wiedefeld must be given the tools and resources to fix Metro. So far he has proven to be the right choice to lead the agency and address its many problems. The board and region should continue to trust his judgment, but verify that it’s leading to the improvements we need to see.
Jack Evans is the District Council member for Ward 2, representing Georgetown and other neighborhoods since 1991.