Thoughts on Resilience: What Happens When WMATA Shuts Down?

Posted: April 12, 2016 at 2:15 pm, Last Updated: August 18, 2016 at 10:59 am

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by K. Denise Rucker Krepp

At 4:16pm on March 15, 2016, I received a phone call from a reporter.  She wanted to know if I had heard anything about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) decision to close the underground metro for 29 hours.  I’m a locally elected official so she assumed that I had received advance notice. I hadn’t, but then again, neither did local Washington, DC Councilmembers nor the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser. The lack of notice was very disappointing given repeated requests in the fall of 2015 for greater communication with DC leaders and those that use the WMATA system on a daily basis.

WMATA is a vast underground mass transit system that links Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC.  Every day hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children use the system to get to work and school.  According to WMATA, 42 percent of peak period commuters are federal employees.[1] The remainder includes school children, private sector workers, tourists, and average DC citizens. Their numbers aren’t small. On April 10, 2014, the busiest day of the year, 818,076 riders used the system.[2]

WMATA’s decision to close its doors on March 16, 2016 wasn’t the first time my constituents faced transportation-related hardships. They enter the WMATA system via the Stadium-Armory metro station, which on a normal day is serviced by three lines—orange, blue, and silver. On September 21, 2015 a fire destroyed equipment at a power substation near the metro station.[3] The damage to the substation was so severe that on September 25, 2015, WMATA decided to modify service—during rush hours orange and silver lines trains would run every eight minutes instead of every six minutes. Ok, not good, but at least the trains were still running on a regular basis.

WMATAMap
Figure: Map of the Washington Metrorail System

The bottom fell out on September 28th when WMATA announced that only blue line trains would be stopping at the Stadium-Armory metro station during rush hour starting September 29th. From opening until 10am and 2pm to 7:30pm, orange and silver line trains would pass through the station. WMATA claimed that “while the impact of this change is limited to one station, the benefit will be realized by tens of thousands of riders.”

WMATA’s logic was flawed. The service cuts in September didn’t impact just one station. The Stadium-Armory metro station is a transportation hub for thousands of school children every day. They enter the WMATA system on the other side of the Anacostia River at the orange line stations Minnesota Avenue and Deanwood.  A couple of stops later they exit the system at Stadium-Armory to go to school at Eastern High School or Eliot Hine Middle School which are located two block away. Additionally, students transfer to buses at the Stadium-Armory station for several Northeast charter schools.

September 29th was a hot mess. WMATA didn’t notify the schools or the students of the change in service. And absent this notice, the students simply assumed that it was like any other day. They got on an orange line train, but this time it didn’t stop at Stadium-Armory station. Confused, students had to get off at the Potomac Avenue metro station and take a blue line train to Stadium-Armory.

Needless to say, many students were late to school that day.  It wasn’t their fault, so I called their principals and asked that they not be marked tardy. My seven-year-old daughter joined the volunteer message team and posted signs at the Stadium-Armory station notifying riders of service cuts.[4] My fellow Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and I then sent a letter to WMATA expressing outrage over the lack of communication with residents and students.[5] The message was crystal clear—more communication was needed in the future.

The September 2015 message failed to resonate. The March 16th decision to close the system was announced at 4:37pm, after the end of the DC school day. The next email to be sent out came from the AlertDC system at 5:42pm. That email notified parents that the District government and the DC public schools would be open on time.  To add to the indigestion, WMATA sent out an email at 6:20pm stating “(a)lternate service options throughout the region will be extremely limited, and severe crowding is expected on buses. The public is advised to make alternate travel arrangements as early as possible.”

WMATA’s cavalier recommendation that parents of school aged children seek alternate travel arrangements made heads spin. According to the Washington Post, 75 percent of District children do not attend schools in their neighborhoods.[6] How exactly were these students going to school if severe crowding was expected and alternate service options were limited?  The DC Public School system, recognizing the insanity of the situation emailed parents at 6:35pm stating that “(s)chool will open on time tomorrow . . . we are working with Metro to add additional bus service so that everyone can make it to school tomorrow. . . We understand that this may present a transportation challenge for many of our families, so all student tardies and absences will be excused tomorrow.” Whew. Problem solved.

Relief for federal workers came from the 6:29pm email from AlertDC stating that “Federal Government will be Open with option for Unscheduled Leave/Unscheduled Telework.”  As stated earlier, they make up 42 percent of the peak commuters. So on the busiest day, assuming the number is 818,076, that removes up to 343,595 federal employees from the system. And the DC Public Schools announcement removed tens of thousands more, but what about everyone else?

In the court rooms located at Judiciary Square that day, I watched U.S. government lawyers and defense counsel plead for deferments. Their witnesses and defendants couldn’t get to court because the mass transit system was shut down. One individual was supposed to arrive from Baltimore and as the judge pointed out, the train from Baltimore to DC was still open. True, replied the lawyer, but there was no way to get from the train station to the court house.

The main roadways in and out of Washington, DC on March 16th were parking lots. WMATA may have been shut down but people still had to get to work. So they crammed into cabs.  In the past, cabs carted one individual at a time. On March 16th, I saw numerous cabs stuffed with four to five people. Capital Bikeshare, a normally for-profit bike share company, offered free 24-hour memberships “to better serve commuters looking for transportation during Metrorail closure.” And as a result, helmet-less riders perilously swerved around cranky, honking drivers desperate to get to work before 11am.

The reasons for closing WMATA on March 16th centered around safety.  Two days before the shutdown, a fire started in a tunnel out of the McPherson Square tunnel. This fire was similar to the one that occurred in January 2015 that killed one WMATA rider and injured many more. WMATA leadership decided to shut down the system on March 16th to determine if there were any additional problems.

Now, I don’t have a problem with WMATA shutting down the system for safety reasons. If the system isn’t safe, then it shouldn’t be running. My problem is that scores of WMATA leaders allowed the mass transit system, a critical infrastructure in Washington, DC, to degrade to the point where over 800,000 lives are placed at risk on a daily basis merely for using a system that WMATA leaders have certified. Someone needs to be held accountable for these failures.

In addition to accountability, WMATA has to take the necessary steps to prevent future maintenance-related closures. As was demonstrated on March 16, 2016, when WMATA shuts down so does everything else. School children don’t go to school; federal workers have to work from home; and court cases are delayed. None of these are acceptable solutions.

Lastly, WMATA has to improve communication with riders and locally elected officials. These officials control the schools, and when closures are announced after the school day ends, schools are left scrambling to communicate with parents.  As the parent of two children, I can assure you that it’s not easy to get kids to school on a normal day.  Asking one to find alternative means of transport for your child when the entire underground system is down and still go to work and figure out how they’re getting home is a task that not even Superwoman could achieve.  I’m not Superwoman and neither are my constituents.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and former Senior Counsel, U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee


References

[1]    “2015 Metro Facts,” WMATA, available at http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/docs/Metro%20Facts%202015.pdf

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    “Stadium-Armory Traction Power Substation Restoration Progress,” WMATA, Dec. 30, 2015,  http://www.wmata.com/rider_tools/metro_service_status/advisories.cfm?AID=5257.

[4]    Sean Mehan, “Metro Communication About Stadium-Armory Service Cuts ‘Unacceptable,’ ANC Says,” Hill Now, Oct. 2, 2015, https://www.hillnow.com/2015/10/02/metro-communication-about-stadium-armory-service-cuts-unacceptable-anc-says/.

[5]    Ibid.

[6]    Abigail Hauslohner, “D.C. Students Will Be Riding Metro for Free this Year,” Washington Post, Aug. 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-students-will-be-riding-metro-for-free-this-year/2015/08/17/e81027d2-44e6-11e5-8ab4-c73967a143d3_story.html,.

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