It’s always rough going to work on Monday. Some weeks though, are worse than others. This week, residents of our nation’s capital found their morning commutes even more of an ordeal than normal. The delays show that Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) efforts to get the system repaired and running smoothly have stalled, creating concerns about how the system will handle the expected rush of inauguration visitors.
In June, WMATA was finally forced to hear the music and begin a series of long-overdue track maintenance projects. Dubbed “SafeTrack,” the work has focused on replacing rotting ties under above-ground rails. It wasn’t enough to stop various problems from snarling commutes this week.
Just before 9 am on Monday, several train cars full of passengers were left stranded on the tracks when a coupler disengaged as the train was leaving the station. About 40 people had to be evacuated onto the tracks to return to the closest station. As the rest of the system handled residual delays caused by the evacuation, it remained unclear if the electrified rail had been turned off during the evacuation or if passengers involved had been charged for their shortened ride.
On Tuesday, fire and smoke at a downtown station near several federal office buildings forced another station closing and more rerouting. Meanwhile, buses that had been taking extra passengers to compensate for closed train stations began to run with less frequency again leading to longer wait times. And on top of it, Uber seems to have quietly ended a promotion which subsidized the cost of a ride into the city to make the service competitive with metro.
The situation is even more urgent, since the city is expecting the arrival of a million visitors for the upcoming presidential inauguration. It has announced trains will run longer hours to try to handle the crush, but an attempt to look up the modified bus schedule on its website leads only to an error page.
This hasn’t stopped the system from pushing for more federal funding, however. Last week, WMATA hired former Virginia congressman Thomas M. Davis to help it lobby for federal money. It’s unclear how much Davis, whose contract lasts through the end of the year, will be paid. But his focus is on developing a strategy to help secure stable and secure funding for WMATA.
Davis isn’t the only one talking about sending more dollars WMATA’s way. Hillary Clinton’s former running mate Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine told reporters on Tuesday that he was “encouraged” by WMATA’s progress in developing a safety culture and seemed unfazed by the closures and delays that have snarled commutes since mid-summer.
“Northern Virginians are the savviest commuters on the planet,” Kaine said. “They’ll always figure out their hack.”
The entire mess has not stopped the beleaguered system from requesting additional funding. Kaine emphasized that Metro would need to demonstrate that it had in fact changed its record on safety and reliability before it received additional funding, but was optimistic that additional funding could be on the way.
“The better and better management does, and the better they address the safety issues to give people a feeling of confidence, the more likely Congress is to do the right thing,” Kaine said. “If Metro management keeps improving on the safety side, then those of us in Congress will keep making the case to all of our colleagues all over the country.”
As the events this week have shown, safety improvements remain a very big “if.”