Plenty of questions, concerns and suggestions made their way to the ears of Metro’s top official June 7 when he briefed the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors about the transit agency’s recent woes and upcoming SafeTrack program. Some supervisors suggested they had been misled along the way.
In addition, several supervisors took the opportunity to pitch for more federal funding of the Metrorail system.
Paul Wiedefeld, general manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, also known as WMATA or Metro, was named the agency’s top official about six months ago, just as the federal government began overseeing a range of problems with the existing 40-year-old system.
To address a lengthy list of problems that has resulted in the closure of various lines during peak periods, Wiedefeld and his team developed the SafeTrack program to systematically fix a range of problems during an abbreviated schedule. He estimated the $60 million program would accomplish in one year what otherwise would take three.
“We have a rail system that’s a two-track system that in some ways has been neglected for many years,” Wiedefeld told supervisors, explaining why he has expedited the work despite the pain it’s causing commuters. “Both from a safety and service reliability standpoint, we just could not wait any longer to do that.”
In the meantime, commuters must adjust to longer drives to and from work in DC. Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) said his morning commute took an hour longer than normal the day of the briefing, while Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) said his commute took two hours and 16 minutes.
“It’s definitely having an effect on us out here in Loudoun,” Buffington said about SafeTrack. “Any efforts you could do to speed that up would be greatly appreciated.”
In addition, accountability and management systems had lapsed over the years, particularly with respect to technology, so Wiedefeld recently announced a series of management changes.
When asked about the status of Phase 2 of the Silver Line project – which will extend the Silver Line 11.4 miles from Wiehle Avenue in Reston through Dulles International Airport and west to Ashburn – Wiedefeld explained that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is overseeing the construction of that project. MWAA’s contractor for the job, Capital Rail Constructors, has an August 2019 deadline for completion of its work. At that time MWAA will turn the project over to WMATA, which will determine the opening date. Wiedefeld said it appears to remain on target for a 2020 opening.
When Supervisor Koran Saines (D-Sterling) asked about plans for expanding capacity for trains crossing the Potomac, particularly with six new stations expected to open in about four years, Wiedefeld acknowledged the problem and said such an expansion is likely ten to 20 years out.
“It’s a very expensive design,” Wiedefeld said, adding that WMATA has not performed an assessment of its needs for seven or eight years.
Board Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) said that in her observation “some of the concerns raise by the people who opposed Metro are coming to fruition.”
Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run) suggested labor costs were exceedingly high compared to other such rail systems, and Wiedefeld said that’s just one of many areas he plans to examine.
Several supervisors wondered if Metro would be seeking additional money from the jurisdictions it serves, while some board members pushed Wiedefeld to seek additional federal money.
“This Metro system is different than all the other ones,” said Board Vice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn). “It serves Washington, DC, the heart of federal employees.” Another difference is that the DC Metro lacks a dedicated source of revenue and must rely on annual requests submitted to participating local governments.
In addition to improving operations and maintenance, Metro has a $1 billion, multi-year capital improvement plan to implement.