Metro late-night service hearing features scathing criticism, pleas and protests from riders, advocates

As riders and elected officials demanded Thursday that Metro reconsider a proposal to end late-night service, which would give workers more time for track maintenance, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld indicated that he might be willing to consider a compromise.

Wiedefeld told reporters outside a hearing that he may move to keep weekend service running until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays by opening later on weekend mornings and closing earlier on weeknights.

In a marathon,9½ -hour public meeting at Metro headquarters, officials heard from workers who fear the limited service schedule will affect their ability to commute to jobs and politicians who worry that the proposal will threaten the region’s economic vitality.

During the evening, demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters to protest the proposal.

The Metro board chairman, Jack Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member, kicked off the public testimony by expressing his disapproval of the proposal. His Ward 2 district is home to a substantial number of bars, restaurants and hotels that would be affected by the change.

Evans said he understands that Metro workers need the extra track time and that officials have struggled to find a compromise that pleases Metro leaders and the jurisdictions the system serves. Metro’s board is expected to make a final decision on the service hours in December.

“I suggested Saturday and Sunday — nobody liked that idea,” Evans said, referring to plans to preserve late-night service by opening late on weekend mornings. “Nobody likes any idea, actually.”

Metro has received nearly 10,000 responses to an online survey on the proposed changes, along with written testimony from more than 300 riders. While many gravitated toward a later closing on weekends, it was clear that the trade-off — shorter weekday hours — would present its own challenges to the region’s workforce.

“What we’re seeing with some of the data is people tend to be gravitating around the third option — the 1 a.m. option,” Wiedefeld said. “Obviously, we could live with that. Let’s let it play out.”

The transit agency imposed a moratorium on late-night closings and early openings in June when it launched SafeTrack, the aggressive maintenance plan aimed at restoring the system to a state of good repair. During SafeTrack, the system closes at midnight daily. Normally, the system is open until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

The system opens at 5 a.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. weekends. Under one proposal, weekend openings would be pushed to 9 a.m. on Saturdays and noon on Sundays.

In July, Wiedefeld proposed permanently ending night-owl service. The proposal drew immediate pushback from District officials and business leaders who said the permanent change would disproportionately affect the city and threaten livelihoods of low-income and late-night workers.

“There has been no articulation of a need, a plan, or how the plan is designed to solve the problem,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wrote in a letter to Metro officials this week. “Why close the entire system when you can only work on discrete segments at any one time? Why would the service cuts be permanent?”

In the months since Wiedefeld first raised the idea, the blowback has only intensified. On Thursday, Wiedefeld admitted that he could have done a better job of articulating the need for more work hours.

“That’s what I’ve got to work on,” he said. “So we will do that. We’re going to be coming out with things that further support what we’re trying to do, why we’re proposing this.”

Later, he added: “It’s complex — and I’m not good at it — it’s complex to explain what we do.”

Metro began late-night service in 1999, when representatives from the District pushed for extended service hours to support local businesses, boost ridership and prevent drunken driving. Metro board members who represented the suburbs opposed the idea, arguing that the transit agency’s limited funds would be better used to improve daily commuter service.

But, just a few months after launching a pilot program to test the idea, Metro officials declared it a success, saying the smaller maintenance window on Friday and Saturday nights had not caused any problems.

Wiedefeld has argued that one reason for the system’s poor condition is years of chipping away at time for track maintenance in exchange for expanded service. He worries that track inspections are being performed haphazardly because they are occurring in the middle of the day, with track walkers constantly focused on staying out of the way of trains.

Metro is a two-track system, which means it cannot perform regular maintenance without shutting down one or both tracks. By contrast, the New York City subway can operate 24 hours a day because it has four tracks, allowing crews to take one set of tracks out of service while trains continue to run on nearby tracks.

At the hearing, Mark Lee, executive director of the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, criticized the agency for selling the region on the idea that after 10 months of SafeTrack-related pain, things would return to normal.

“The investment we made without complaint has yielded only surrender by Metro management to a declining ridership and an accelerating ‘death spiral’ for the transit system that is the lifeblood of the economy of the District and the region,” Lee said. “We expect, and demand, a better return on our investment.”

Lessie Henderson, co-chair of the Prince George’s Advocates for Community Based Transit, called the proposed cuts “disgraceful.”

“Although we knew the maintenance has to happen, it cannot happen at the expense of the people who need this service the most,” she said.

District officials have vowed to oppose to any measure that would threaten late-night service, and the D.C. Council last week passed a resolution urging Metro to restore the service at the end of SafeTrack. Such a resolution, however, is not binding on Metro.

In addition, some Metro board members, including District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo, are skeptical that Metro is making adequate use of the 33 weekly hours already allotted for track time.

At the hearing, speakers argued that Uber, Lyft, taxis and other alternatives to public transit cannot fill the void that would be left by an early closure of Metro.

“I’ve witnessed people losing their jobs because they couldn’t make their closing shift because of Metro’s current hours,” said Chauniece Jones, who testified on behalf of Project Retail, which represents food and service workers. “When Metro’s not running and I have to pay for a Lyft or Uber to get to work, that’s $30. When you’re working for the minimum wage, that’s too much . . . The people that run Metro, you all can afford to pay those prices, but the people in the working class can’t.”

Denise Rush, who is blind and serves as vice-chair of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, said ending late-night service would be especially harmful to riders with disabilities.

“If you cut the service and keep cutting, then how are handicapped people going to get around? We are all connected,” she said.

Justino Gomez, 63, who has a part-time job cleaning at the World Bank downtown, testified that he can’t afford any proposal that would close Metro earlier than midnight. Through a translator, Gomez, who commutes from Prince George’s Plaza to Farragut West, delivered a passionate plea to keep the system open late.

“If the Metro closes before midnight, I’d have to take a taxi, which costs about $35 to get home,” he said. “I, as well as other people, will pay more to be able to get home if the Metro isn’t running. I’m asking you to close the Metro at 12 midnight at the earliest, not before that, so that when us cleaning workers get to the Metro station, we won’t be faced with the fact that there is no Metro service.

“All I have is this part-time job.”

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