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SILVER SPRING – County resident Michelle Ngwafon said that during the first week of her first job, she was late each day when she rode the Red Line. Ngwafon, president of Montgomery County Young Dems, is the one of many Metro riders who has experienced problems with delayed or late trains using the area’s transit system.
“The good thing is my boss understood because everyone knew that the Red Line was always late. It’s also the excuse most of my friends use, even though most of us don’t use Metro anymore,” she said, which drew laughter throughout the room. “It’s like, everyone believes you.”
Ngwafon was one of about 100 people who gathered at the Silver Spring Civic Building at Veterans Plaza on Feb. 21 either to comment or to hear what other riders said about Metro’s rail and bus services during a town hall on the proposed budget of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul Wiedefeld. Several residents complained about frequently arriving late in circumstances such as traveling to work, traveling to meetings or traveling to pick up a child from after-school care due to Metro buses and trains being unreliable.
Others complained about how the trains that travel all the way to the end of the line at Glenmont Station come much less frequently than those that travel to their stations, and suggested they arrive less frequently than WMATA claims.
Montgomery County Council Transportation and Environment Committee Chairperson Tom Hucker (D-5), and committee members Hans Riemer (D- At Large) and Evan Glass (D-At Large) hosted the town hall.
Advocacy and civic organization representatives, such as Ngwafon, spoke first, and then individuals could request the microphone to make comments to the committee members and two Metro board members Mike Goldman and Kathy Porter, who represent Maryland. Most individuals who spoke were self-identified Silver Spring residents.
“Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t have Metro?” Riemer asked. “What would happen to traffic on our highways and on our roads? No one would be able to drive anywhere. So, whether you drive or whether you take metro, you are invested Metro’s success.”
Currently, some of the rush-hour Red Line trains heading toward Glenmont change directions and travel back toward Washington, D.C. instead of to the Glenmont Station. County council members refer to this arrangement as a turnback. In Wiedefeld’s proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year, the turnback at Silver Spring Metro Station would end, so that all Red Line trains would travel all the way to Glenmont at the end of the line. Forest Glen, Wheaton and Glenmont stations would receive rush hour trains more frequently than they currently do. The Metro’s Board of Directors must first approves a budget that funds the ending of the Silver Spring turnbacks.
Wheaton resident Brigid Howe said she “definitely” supports the end of the Silver Spring turnbacks. She told Metro officials she must wait extra time for a Glenmont-bound train due to delays and it costs her more money. Her son’s daycare charges “a dollar a minute” when a guardian is late to pick up his or her child.
“Please end the turnbacks because it actually is a major issue for a lot of parents in the area,” Howe said.
Recent support of delaying the return of late-night rail service brought the ire of several people in attendance. Ben Ross, chairperson for the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition and long-time transit advocate, said the schedule of rail service at Metro is a disadvantage for people who work in the evenings, as the last train from Rockville leaves before they finish a shift.
“Basically, a restaurant has to have its employees out of there by 10:30 (p.m.),” Ross said, referring to the late-night schedule. “That’s just really early.”
Ross said he does not believe that encouraging would-be riders to take a ride-sharing service, such as Lyft or Uber, at night is a feasible solution, especially with people for whom public transportation is an expense they can barely afford. Recommending ridesharing services to riders after stations close is an idea that members of the board of have discussed in recent years. It voted back in 2016 to reduce the number of late-night service hours to allow more time for maintenance work. However, ride sharing services tend to cost more than the cost of fares for bus or Metro.
“Telling people going from Rockville to southeast D.C. to take Uber is ridiculous, especially with jobs they just ‘get by’ on,” said Ross.
“While Uber and other car systems are great, they aren’t always affordable; they aren’t always easy. They don’t always go everywhere,” said Ngwafon. “And the point of public transportation and paying taxes into public transportation is that it works for the people, whether you have a lot of money or a little money.”
One woman, who identified herself as a small business owner, said one of the Red Line’s major shutdowns during the last few years was very disruptive, making her late for work even when she allowed an hour of additional travel time. She asked Maryland Metro Board members Goldman and Porter how the fiscal year 2020 budget would prevent shutdowns with major impacts to service.
Porter said shutdowns and single-tracking trains, which interrupt service, are necessary due to the backlog of maintenance work. The shutdown at Rhode Island Avenue Station, in which crews had to fix the problem of concrete falling from the ceilings, was needed due to the age of the station.
Not everyone started their comments with complaints; Elisabeth Null, who lives in Silver Spring and uses a wheelchair, said she “loves” the Red Line because it allows her to live independently. When Null travels to cities not accessible by the Red Line, she has difficulty finding transportation that is accessible to her in her wheelchair.
Officials continued to answer residents’ questions and concerns for two houses before Chairperson Hucker drew the Town Hall to a close. Wiedefeld did not attend the Town Hall, leaving Goldman to answer all operating budget questions.
U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-8), who was in attendance, called the transit system “America’s Metro system” and vowed to fight for more federal investment to continue helping around the Metropolitan area.
“I’m thrilled about what the [council] transportation committee is doing,” Raskin said. “There is progress coming on the Red Line, which is great news for those who live along the Redline and the Metro.”