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Metro Mum On Plan To Ease Platform Crowding

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Crowded platforms at Gallery Place-Chinatown are all too common and, some say, potentially dangerous.
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Crowded platforms at Gallery Place-Chinatown are all too common and, some say, potentially dangerous.

Three months after a complaint forced Metro to agree to study platform crowding throughout its rail system, the transit authority continues to refuse to release any information about its work to deal with a problem that is among riders’ biggest frustrations.

On Nov. 10 a rider filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) after a disabled train offloaded passengers onto the crowded platform at Gallery Place-Chinatown station during morning rush hour.

“Metro is so close to a deadly incident,” the complaint said. “Metro station employees and loudspeakers did nothing to clear the platform, and it was extremely dangerous and scary.”

The result was an agreement between FTA and Metro for the latter to form a working group to study platform crowding across its six rail lines.

“WMATA previously stated it would establish a working group to develop a Strategic Overcrowding Plan. FTA is not a member of the WMATA working group, but the FTA will review and approve the work that WMATA produces on this important safety issue,” said FTA spokesman Steve Kulm in a statement to WAMU 88.5.

“For information on the status, actions and deliverables of the working group, please contact WMATA directly.”

Metro repeatedly has declined all requests for information about the platform crowding study. When asked Friday to arrange an interview with the official in charge of the working group, a Metro spokesman tersely responded by email, “No, not today.”

Short-term fixes?

Crowded platforms are not a new problem. A 2008 Metro study identified Gallery Place-Chinatown among seven stations with crowding issues as a result of inadequate egress. Metro’s unfunded expansion plan, Momentum, named six stations “that would have inadequate ‘vertical circulation’ (stairs and escalators) by 2014: Farragut North, Farragut West, L’Enfant Plaza, Metro Center, Shady Grove and Union Station.”

“I’ve personally been looking at this issue for the last couple months because of a problem brought to my attention at Shady Grove station,” said Michael Goldman, the chair of the safety committee on the Metro board of directors. Goldman represents Maryland on the board.

In December, Montgomery County officials called on Metro to alleviate platform crowding at Shady Grove by building an exit staircase to relieve the bottleneck at escalators, the least expensive of four alternatives listed in planning documents for the station.

In a letter, Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld responded, “I have recommended the WMATA board consider improvements to a group of stations during the FY2017 capital budget deliberations, based on the degrees of overcrowding and ridership expectation.”

“An alternative approach may be for the state of Maryland and Montgomery County to identify funding for the Shady Grove Station,” Wiedefeld said in his letter to Roger Berliner, the chair of the Montgomery County Council’s transportation committee.

Goldman said he will propose each jurisdiction – Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. – receive $10 million from Metro’s capital budget for short-term station fixes to alleviate platform crowding. 

“We’re talking about a capital budget that is the range of $1 billion each year. $30 million is hardly a decimal point,” Goldman said. “So to…find $10-, $20-, or $30 million to make some improvements at stations that are going to make our riders feel safe, seems to be a small price to pay.”

Federal safety standards coming

Also on Thursday, Goldman’s committee is scheduled to be briefed on an FTA proposal for transit systems like Metro to set performance targets based of federal safety standards, an outgrowth of the agency’s enhanced oversight authority granted by Congress in 2012.

“FTA is making great progress in establishing the regulatory framework which will become the blueprint for the future of safety performance in public transit,” said FTA Acting Administrator Therese McMillan in a statement earlier this month.

Goldman welcomed the proposal.

“The FTA is doing for surface transportation — buses, trolleys, and trains — what the FAA has done for many years for aviation, to set some broad, national safety standards that transit systems that will be required to adhere to,” said Goldman, an aviation attorney, who was appointed to the Metro board by former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.

“It will require Metro to adopt a safety plan for the agency. Metro already has a safety plan, so what we will have to do once this federal rule is finalized is modify our existing plan so it meets the broader FTA guidelines,” Goldman added.

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