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ROCKVILLE – Metro’s board of directors are one step closer to delaying the return of late-night rail service for one more year.
The Board Safety and Operations Committee approved a motion to keep the current hours of service until (July 1, 2020), but the full board must vote on the motion before it can take effect. The committee voted 3 to 1 on Feb. 14, with Board Chairman and D.C. Council Member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) contributing the opposing vote.
Following the vote, Evans threatened to use the board’s “jurisdictional veto” in order not to approve the motion. The veto is when two members representing a jurisdiction vote not to approve something, and then the item or motion put to a vote cannot proceed. Corbett Price is the other voting board member who represents the District.
Restoring late-night service to Metro could delay federal government approval of the safety oversight agency for Metro and could have drastic effects on federal transportation funding in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Metro changed its hours of rail service back in 2016, after the end of SafeTrack – the year of long-term projects that required continuous shutdowns and single-tracking – to reduce late-night hours, allowing time for crews to perform maintenance and repairs on the tracks.
The Federal Transit Administration’s Acting Administrator, K. Jane Williams, warned General Manager Paul Wiedefeld in a letter that if Metro were to increase late-night service and cut maintenance time, FTA would have to go back and check some of the previously approved corrective action plans (CAPs) that Metro created upon direction from FTA to fix maintenance backlogs.
The plans, or CAPs, that WMATA gave FTA for when and how it would finish the work for all the maintenance issues were structured around the hours that Metrorail would be closed, Williams wrote. Those plans would no longer be effective in helping the maintenance issues because the workers would have fewer hours per week to complete the maintenance.
Wiedefeld told the Safety and Operations Committee on Jan. 24 that the hours with no service used for maintenance are important for keeping Metro safe, and asked members to consider Williams’s letter when deciding whether to change the hours of rail service.
“I think it’s just something that as the board discusses this [issue] and as the region discusses this issue, I think we have to keep in mind that this is a very big player in our world today and obviously will be in the future,” Wiedefeld said.
Many Metro board members have said that they support the general manager in his preference to have hours of late-night service remain as they have been the past two years.
“I think a majority of the board feels very strongly that the current hours should be maintained because that is the recommendation of the general manager and that’s why we hired him, to bring that kind of expertise as to bringing WMATA back to status as a first-rate transit system,” Metro Board Member Mike Goldman said.
Meanwhile, Evans has said repeatedly that he wants his constituents, such as those working in businesses, hotels and restaurants, to be able to take Metro home after a late night, especially after two years without late-night service. Many constituents told him they don’t feel safe riding a bus late at night, either due to cold weather or for fear about potential crime occurring near bus stops.
“The city’s late-night industry workers tell me all the time that they want an affordable and convenient way to get home,” Evans said, later adding, “I support reinstating the late-night hours for the people who depend on the trains to get around.”
Evans’s concern for late-night workers was a primary reason he opposed ending late-night service two years ago.
Ride-sharing services, such as Uber or Lyft, cost more than riding the Metro and not affordable for many riders in his jurisdiction who need transportation during late-night hours, Evans said.
Wiedefeld has said a few times during the last few months that if the board increases late-night service and decreases the number of maintenance hours, the trains would become less punctual and less reliable. He also would have to take away the “rush hour promise,” by which riders traveling during rush hour who register their SmarTrip cards online can be reimbursed for a fare if their trip takes more than 15 minutes longer than scheduled. If he did that, Wiedefeld said, Metro could no longer guarantee that the rail service is reliable.
Williams wrote to Wiedefeld in a letter dated Jan. 18 that the potential schedule change could cause delay to the certification of Metro’s future safety oversight agency, the Metro Safety Commission.
“These actions could also delay transition of direct safety oversight functions from the FTA to the Washington Metropolitan Safety Commission (WMSC) because the resources focused on transition will need to be redirected to the items above 9completing CAPs),” Williams wrote.
The schedule change would not impact just the Metro safety Commission; it would affect the funding jurisdictions of Metro by withholding federal funding from all included transportation agencies, according to a news release from FTA from September. Under federal law, the (W) MSC must obtain certification of its state-level safety oversight (SSO) by April 15.
“If (W) MSC misses the deadline, FTA will be prohibited by law from obligating a minimum of $638 million in FY 2019 federal transit funding to all transit providers across the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia until certification is achieved,” according to the release.
FTA added that it would continue to withhold $32 million in FY 17 and FY 18 “federal transit funding” if the jurisdictions failed to meet the SSO program deadline.
Depending on the hours the full board chooses, the change might, under federal law, require a public hearing before becoming final. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 28 at 10 a.m.