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From A to B: Metro Launches Ambitious Rebuilding Program

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One side of Dupont Circle station is closed for construction during Metro's ambitious rebuilding program to improve escalators, rail cars and buses.
Martin Di Caro
One side of Dupont Circle station is closed for construction during Metro's ambitious rebuilding program to improve escalators, rail cars and buses.

In an effort to rid one of the nation's most heavily used mass transit systems of broken escalators, dimly lit stations and out-of-date buses and rail cars, Metro is undergoing its largest rebuilding project since the transit authority opened its doors in 1976.

Metro's five-year, $5.9 billion capital improvements plan budgets $952 million for fiscal year 2013. The list of things to be fixed is long, from the public address system to air-conditioning on buses and trains, from street signs to railroad ties.

The transit authority faces a steep backlog of problems because of decades of underinvestment, one aspect of which was recently brought to a light at a Metro board of directors meeting. One board member revealed that the agency knew six years ago that certain brake parts were failing sooner than expected on rail cars, but had to cancel plans to fix them for financial reasons.

Steps to improving Metro safety and quality

Following the June 2009 accident on the Red Line that killed eight passengers and one train operator, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a slew of safety upgrades, including the replacement of the old 1000 series rail cars with the modern 7000 series.

Metro's head engineer, Rob Troup, says the transit authority's aim is to properly maintain the system once all the fixes are done.

"I liken it to painting the Golden Gate Bridge," he says. "You get to the one end, you have to go back and start all over again. It's the same thing with our stations. I think it would be unfair of me to say the work is ever going to end because it is not. We do not want to end up in same situation where we have to have long-term shutdowns and long-term single-tracking to get through the back log."

Metro recently provided an update on the project during the last six months of 2011. More than $300 million was spent on new rail cars, switches, and other items. Fifty-three buses were rehabilitated, and Metro plans to bring 166 new buses into its fleet this year.

Among commuters' complaints, broken escalators may be the most common, or at least the hardest to understand; week after week the same escalators seem to break down. Metro started work on a plan to eventually replace 94 escalators; 14 were rehabilitated or replaced last year.

"The challenge with the escalators is that we have a multitude of different types of vendors," says Troup. "We have a multitude of different types of manufacturers, some of which are not in existence anymore, so parts are hard to come by. We either have to manufacture the parts ourselves or find manufacturers or machinists to get those parts for us."

Meeting demands

The transit authority is finally able to undertake wide-ranging improvements because of an infusion of federal and state funding through grants under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA).

In fiscal year 2013, PRIIA grants account for $323 million of Metro's $952 million capital budget, or 32 percent of the total. State and local jurisdictions in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are providing $173 million augmented by a matching $150 million PRIIA grant. Metro is also using short and long-term borrowing to finance the improvements.

As commuters look forward to the new Metro, some watchdog groups say the transit authority is not adequately investing in additional capacity.

"There is nothing wrong with the current capital budget for the next six-year period," says Jack Corbett, an attorney and member of MetroRiders.org. However, Corbett says what is not in the budget is just as important as what is included.

"[Metro] anticipated that by 2020 we'd need additional rail cars beyond just replacing the cars in their capital plan," he says. "And in discussions between Metro and the contributing jurisdictions, they just dropped that out and decided they couldn't pay for that."

As the region grows in population, the transit system will strain to meet its demands, says Allen Greenberg, a policy analyst at MetroRiders.org.

"We are a growing region," Greenberg says. "Our roads are too crowded. The cost of accommodating cars is too great. The pollution and other externalities are too great for a region with all this density for us not to... increase the size and service of our transit system. We don't see any investments going to expanding the system to accommodate that."

A proposed fare increase on trains, buses, and Metro Access vehicles would pay for the maintenance required to keep up the system once the capital improvements are completed. At recent public hearings on the fare increase, Metro riders had the chance to watch a video produced to publicize the ongoing projects. WMATA General Manager Richard Sarles appeared on the screen and summed up the feelings of the 800,000 riders who use the transit system every day.

"This was the number one model for a transit system in the United States," Sarles says in the video. "Unfortunately, it has become the number one model for what happens when you don't maintain it well."

[Music by: "A to B" by The Futureheads from The Futureheads / "Revival" from Me Phi Me from Reality Bites Soundtrack]

Photos: Metro Rebuilding Program


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