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On its annual day of reckoning yesterday, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency faced up to the test of time—literally. Councilmembers, residents, and science advocates pelted Metro officials about why everything at the agency is taking so long—from the wait time for the next train to going green.

How WMATA Got Off-Track

Longtime WMATA woes have included severe train delays and buses running on slower schedules due to pandemic staff shortages as well as a derailment that took the 7000-series rail cars out of commission. (The earliest ETA for 7000-series trains to return is April.) A safety audit report of Metro released yesterday stressed how communication problems and incident management issues have paved the way for preventable accidents, chaos, and even fatalities. 

The problems have gotten so bad that Congress has had to step in. During a Feb. 9 hearing, Congressional leaders decried Metro’s “pervasive culture of mediocrity.” They questioned how WMATA’s leadership and safety commission were out of the loop for so long about the 7000-series cars’ wheel defects, which ultimately caused the derailment last October.

Metro has been working on redeeming itself, at least with bus and train delays. Yesterday, Red Line trains started operating every 10 minutes on weekdays. Recent changes have also seen increased service on the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines, though other lines are still running every 20 minutes. And buses started running on a regular weekday schedule on Feb. 7. Meanwhile, Metro has been striving for a new look that means SmarTrip cards older than 2012 won’t work past March 1. The agency will also soon have a new face in leadership, as Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld will be stepping down from his post after more than six years in the role.

The Ridership-Service “Conundrum”

Ron Thompson Jr., policy officer at Greater Greater Washington, raised the disproportionate impact of delays on marginalized communities, including the ongoing Metro bus operator shortage and chronic absence of the 7000-series fleet. Thompson asked whether Metro could reallocate resources for routes with fewer riders to those with higher ridership rates, especially among essential workers and those with little access to other means of transit.

“I feel like we’re kind of in a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum about ridership service right now,” At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson said. She described a hypothetical in which employees who are expected back at the office in March don’t take Metro because they’re worried about long, delayed commutes. Henderson’s concern was that a vicious cycle of slower service could continue if it’s dependent on ridership.

“I think that it’s more so … a new normal,” Wiedefeld replied. “We have to start to adjust the service to do that … We need to focus [on] … what is it that we can do to meet the reach of travelers’ needs, and not necessarily just focus on the peak period, which historically is where we apply all of our resources and at the expense … of the midday and the labor day. That’s got to be rethought.”

Electrifying 

But the bus fleet situation in D.C. is just as problematic as train service delays and low ridership, according to Elliott Negin, senior writer at Union of Concerned Scientists. Under a plan Metro approved in June, 80 percent of its buses will run on fossil fuels by 2030, at a time when bus fleets in other metro cities like L.A. and Houston would be 100 percent electric, Negin said. 

For years D.C. environmental groups, citing pollution and the role of smog in the District’s relatively high asthma rates among children, have called for bus fleets to go green. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson also isn’t a fan of Metro’s plan. WMATA’s timeline would set the District way behind the schedule outlined in D.C.’s Clean Energy Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018, which calls for a zero-emission fleet by 2045. Plus, electric buses aren’t that complicated, Mendelson said. To make his point, the chairman took the opportunity to toot his own electric horn.

“I don’t get what’s going on that Metro is so slow … [that] this is so difficult,” Mendelson said. “I drive an electric vehicle. You know how hard it is for me to drive an electric vehicle? Turn it on, I have to get used to the fact that it doesn’t make noise. … I have to get used to the fact that it doesn’t make noise when I turn it off. And I have to figure out how to plug it in. That’s it. That’s how difficult it is. … I think that’s what’s going on with Metro. This is like some foreign option.”

Wiedefeld maintained that the issue isn’t WMATA’s fear of the unknown or fear of plugging in a bus. The agency manager cited complicating factors such as regional climate (for instance, batteries for electric cars drain more quickly in colder weather—the difference between L.A. and D.C. winters). He also said Metro leadership needs more time to consider other green tech options for the 1,500-bus fleet.   

Mendelson didn’t buy it. He said the agency isn’t setting itself up to move to an electric fleet. WMATA is building out several garages for natural gas instead of the future of electric batteries. Also telling are WMATA’s pre-hearing responses where the agency doesn’t contemplate how it will build bus routes to accommodate for electric vehicles’ limited range.

Mendelson said the agency is spending money to continue using fossil fuels while other cities are moving to zero-emission. And for that matter, what are these other green tech options for bus fleets, and why does Metro need to muse on the decision for years?   

“I’m finding, you know, taking a decade to figure out the best technology, that’s not our policy,” Mendelson said. “Is that really Metro’s policy? … If I’m conveying frustration, I am frustrated.”

Today, the Council’s transportation committee is holding a hearing on a bill that would give eligible D.C. residents up to $100 per month for Metro bus and train rides and increase the budget for bus service. The hearing starts at noon.

Ambar Castillo (acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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