Monday, May 23, 2016

Metro Shutdowns Will Come Sooner for Prince Georgians

Photo by WMATA.
Under WMATA’s revised SafeTrack schedule issued last week, the 16-day planned shutdown of Metrorail service across the Anacostia River on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines will now occur two months earlier—from June 18 to July 3.

This shutdown, one of 15 planned “safety surges” of major Metrorail infrastructure repairs set to occur over the next year, will cause the greatest disruption to Prince George’s County riders. More than 20,000 people commute daily between Prince George’s County and downtown Washington, DC, or northern Virginia on the OR/BL/SV lines. About 5,000 additional commuters east of the Anacostia River (EOTR) in the District’s Ward 7 also rely on these lines. Thus far, however, county and District officials have not yet communicated any concrete plans for how they will assist these impacted individuals.

Metro had originally scheduled this shutdown for mid-August. But the agency had to move up this project in response to a May 11 directive from the Federal Transit Administration, which told Metro to prioritize certain repairs, including at a junction point on the elevated tracks east of the Stadium-Armory station.

County and District Officials Must Develop Mitigation Plans Now

With less than a month left before this major shutdown, local officials are running out of time to come up with plans to avoid a major commuter disaster for EOTR residents. We need a strategy, and we need it now.

Earlier this month, Prince George’s Urbanist strongly urged Metro to work with MARC, CSX, and/or Amtrak to develop a temporary commuter rail shuttle between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza along the old Baltimore & Potomac Railroad lines that parallel parts of the Orange Line. WMATA’s alternate board member for Prince George’s County, Malcom Augustine, indicated Metro was exploring this option; however, we have not received any further updates from Metro or MARC officials. Given the newly truncated timeline for this OR/BL/SV segment shutdown, it is unclear whether that shuttle could even be established in time.

In response to inquiries late last week by Prince George’s Urbanist, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T), Paulette Jones, indicated that the agency was still reviewing the revised SafeTrack plan but expected to have additional information to share in the coming days. Specifically, we asked DPW&T the following questions (among others):

  • Has DPW&T been in discussions with the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Maryland’s State Highway Administration (SHA) about coordinating the dedication of bus lanes (e.g., along Central Ave and East Capitol St, Addison Rd and Silver Hill Rd, and Pennsylvania Ave)?
  • What is the current capacity of the county’s local bus system (“TheBus”) to provide mitigation during SafeTrack, and has DPW&T explored expanding current capacity?
  • Who specifically at DPW&T is coordinating the mitigation efforts?

Photo by ifumth on Flickr.

To Spur Things Along, We Should Also Suggest Ideas

Hopefully, we will have additional information to report from DPW&T soon. In the meantime, perhaps we should help crowdsource some ideas for them. Here are some ideas that immediately come to mind:

►Direct (Nonstop) Bus Shuttles to Eastern Market Along Dedicated Lanes: DPW&T should urge Metro to alter its current shuttle bus plan so that it provides free direct shuttle service for EOTR commuters between Benning Road or Minnesota Ave stations and Eastern Market station. Currently, Metro is proposing a shuttle that would make intervening stops at Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue, which will both be closed for rail service during the shutdown.

Given the high number of EOTR commuters who will be depending on these shuttle buses, it is highly unlikely that there will be additional space to pick up additional riders at Statium-Armory or Potomac Avenue. Additionally, stopping at these stations will only further delay EOTR commuters from reaching a working Metrorail station. Besides, there are already ample Metrobus routes that can connect riders at those two stations to downtown Washington. And the Potomac Avenue station is also in easy walking or biking distance to the Eastern Market station.

To facilitate the journey, these buses should travel in dedicated lanes along East Capitol Street, 14th Street, and South Carolina Avenue.

►Direct Bus Shuttle Between Addison Road and Suitland: In addition to the OR/BL/SV shuttles provided from Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road stations, Metro and DPW&T should establish a free shuttle bus service from Addison Road station to Suitland station. The shuttle should run in dedicated lanes, where possible, along Addison Road South, Walker Mill Road, and Silver Hill Road.

►Nonpeak Fares For Any Impacted Rail Line: To encourage continued ridership and goodwill, WMATA should waive peak fares for any segment of the Metrorail system that is projected to experience a greater than 20 percent reduction in peak service due to SafeTrack.

Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr
►Rent School Buses to Increase Capacity: It's not glamorous, but school buses are actually a cheap and effective way of safely transporting people of all ages. They seat as many adults as traditional commuter buses—sometimes more—and are perfectly appropriate for short-distance trips. Many companies have large fleets of charter school buses available for rental. For example, a simple Google search uncovered this company, which boasts a fleet of 17,000 buses. If DPW&T and DDOT could rent, say, 100 of these school buses for use during the 16-day shutdown, to augment WMATA's planned 40 additional shuttle buses, EOTR commuters might realistically be able to continue relying on public transit to get to and from their jobs.

What other ideas do you have? Please leave them in the comments.

(This article was modified on 05/24/2016 to include additional suggestions.)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Here's How MARC and CSX Could Help Lessen the Burden of Metro Shutdowns

Photo by Ryan Stavely on Wikipedia
The entire Washington metropolitan region let out a collective groan on Friday, when WMATA's new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, announced his ambitious plan to repair Metrorail’s aging and increasingly unreliable system over the next year. Deep down, we all know that these repairs absolutely need to happen and that we’ve put them off for far too long.

But as we begin the hard work of restoring our Metrorail system to its former glory, we also need to make sure that the region’s commuters can continue to rely on other modes of public transit to get them where they need to go reliably and speedily. To that end, one strategy that Maryland and DC officials should seriously consider is establishing a temporary MARC commuter rail shuttle route between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza via the CSX freight rail lines. Such a route could greatly alleviate the congestion that Metro riders on the Orange, Blue, and Silver (OR/BL/SV) lines east of the Anacostia River (EOTR) would otherwise experience during the next year.

Metro’s repairs will significantly impact Prince George’s riders

WMATA’s “SafeTrack” plan will require complete shutdowns of certain segments of Metro’s 118-mile rail system for weeks at a time. Even when stations aren’t shut down, many will have extended periods of single-tracking or will experience significantly reduced train service levels. Beginning in June and continuing for nearly a year, Metro will carry out 15 of these long-term “safety surge” projects.

In Prince George’s County, the most significant impact of SafeTrack will occur late this summer, between August 20 and September 6, when Metro plans to shut down OR/BL/SV service between Eastern Market and Benning Road (BL/SV) / Minnesota Avenue (OR). This will sever the Metrorail connection to downtown Washington for nearly half of Prince George’s Metro stations and three of the four Metrorail lines in the county.

Image from WMATA

Similarly, in November and December of this year and March of next year, Metrorail service on the OR/BL/SV lines EOTR will be significantly reduced because of single tracking and closures on other segments of those lines.

To help mitigate the impact of the track work and shutdowns, WMATA plans to have 40-50 additional buses on hand to provide alternate service. It will also run more eight-car trains, since service will be less frequent. Finally, Metro has requested the support of the affected jurisdictions (Maryland, Virginia, the District, and the counties and cities where Metro operates) to implement the necessary traffic control measures to facilitate increased bus and private automobile traffic. But is that enough?

For the types of large-scale, long-term repairs that WMATA is envisioning over the next year, it is going to take more than a few extra buses, dedicated bus and HOV lanes, and traffic cops to avert a commuter crisis. The Chicago Transit Authority, for example, marshaled over 400 buses and had a months-long public outreach campaign before embarking on its five-month shutdown of part of its rail network in 2013.

Similarly, it may not be realistic to ask governmental and private employers to allow significant chunks of their workforce to work remotely for weeks at a time. Those measures may work for a short-term shutdown, such as the 29-hour emergency repair that Metro did in March, but they are not a long-term strategy.

A temporary MARC shuttle could ease a lot of the pain

Fortunately, the CSX-owned freight rail lines that parallel the WMATA Orange line tracks EOTR may provide a workable solution. The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), which runs the MARC commuter rail system, could work with CSX, Amtrak, and DDOT to establish a temporary MARC shuttle between Deanwood and L’Enfant Plaza from at least August 2016 through April 2017.

The L’Enfant commuter rail station is currently used by Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Amtrak. A separate branch of CSX railway connects the L'Enfant station to Washington’s Union Station from the south.

MARC currently serves Union Station via three other routes from the north, including its most popular Penn Line service via Baltimore and New Carrollton, on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. But that existing service is already oversaturated and would not be able to accommodate the masses of additional OR/BL/SV line Metrorail passengers in Prince George's County that will be impacted by the SafeTrack shutdowns.

Currently, there is no MARC station or platform at Deanwood, but as the pictures below show, there are three CSX freight rail tracks directly adjacent to the northern (inbound) track of the Deanwood Metro station:

Deanwood Metro Station. Image from Google Earth.

Deanwood Metro Station Platform. Photo by author.

That segment of the CSX freight rail network, called the Landover Subdivision, is not currently used for passenger service, although it was originally the main Baltimore & Potomac Railroad passenger route between Baltimore and Washington, DC. CSX has at times been reluctant to allow passenger service on its freight lines. But in light of the impending regional transportation crisis resulting from WMATA's planned SafeTrack initiative, we should not assume that CSX would not be willing to make the necessary accommodations to allow for passenger service along the Landover Subdivision.

CSX is a good corporate citizen and has worked with District, Maryland, and federal officials to allow passenger service on its other rail lines in the region. Additionally, under federal law, Amtrak has the ability to prioritize passenger service over any freight rail line, and it could be called in to work with MTA and CSX to establish such temporary regional service in this situation if necessary.

Establishing temporary MARC service can happen quickly

This modular platform at a Chicago Metra rail station
 was erected in three days. Photo by Composite Advantage.
Within a matter of days, MTA could quickly erect a modular platform (like this, this, or this), stairway, and ADA-compliant ramp on the northern side of the CSX tracks, at Polk St NE, which is connected to the Deanwood Metro station via an existing underpass.

Similarly, with a little additional effort, a second elevated platform with stairs and even a temporary elevator could be erected at the southern end of the CSX tracks at the L’Enfant station, along Virginia Ave SW, between 6th and 7th Streets, to provide additional capacity for passenger boarding and alighting there. (As an example, look at these great photos of a temporary elevated platform at Chicago's Pulaski Station.)

The MARC shuttle could run every 15-40 minutes between Deanwood and L’Enfant, depending on the time of day. Orange line customers could ride the Metro from New Carrollton, Landover, or Cheverly to Deanwood and then transfer to MARC. Blue and Silver line customers could ride Metro to the Addison Road station and then take a free express shuttle bus to the nearby Deanwood station.

Each of the OR/BL/SV Metro stations in Prince George's has ample commuter parking, which should be free or heavily discounted during this emergency period to encourage commuters not to drive into the District. Similarly, those commuters transferring back into the Metrorail system at Deanwood or L'Enfant from the MARC shuttle should receive a credit for the Prince George's portion of their Metro fare.

L'Enfant VRE Station. Photo by VRE.

This temporary MARC shuttle could effectively transport thousands of impacted Prince George’s OR/BL/SV line riders per day to and from downtown, and it would do so much more efficiently than 50 additional Metro buses could ever hope to do.

To encourage ridership, the cost of the MARC shuttle should be minimal (e.g., not more than $2.50 each way, and with eligibility for the $0.50 SmarTrip discount for inter-modal transfers from Metrorail or Metrobus). Conductors should use handheld on-board fare collection devices that allow for customers to pay with their SmarTrip, debit, or credit cards.

Over an extended period of repairs, such as those we will face during the SafeTrack program, this temporary MARC shuttle could provide a realistic rail alternative that would keep the region’s commuters out of their cars and committed to transit. WMATA and governmental officials owe it to the public to consider these kinds of creative options.