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Plans to Build New Ballston Metro Station Entrance Could Stall

Arlington officials worry that their plans to build a second entrance to Ballston Metro station could stall and be delayed indefinitely if the county and WMATA can’t make progress soon.

To get a move on and finally construct a western entrance for the highly trafficked station, county leaders say they need millions more in funding, and they’ve had trouble tracking down that money.

Arlington asked for $72 million from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to help pay for design work and construction, but the regional group passed over the project entirely in its new six-year funding plan. Without that cash, County Board Chair Katie Cristol worries that the roughly $25 million Arlington’s already received in state transportation funding for the project could go up in smoke, throwing its future in jeopardy.

“We have not spent down… very much of the design funds that have already been awarded,” Cristol told ARLnow. “I don’t think it’s imminent that they’re about to be clawed back if we don’t make progress. But I think they could be, especially in a time where resources are constrained everywhere.”

Cristol, Arlington’s representative to the NVTA, says the group ultimately chose not to award more money for the Ballston project because its leaders just didn’t see enough forward momentum on design work for the effort.

“We’re a little stuck, and we do need to show progress,” Cristol said.

It doesn’t help matters, as Cristol pointed out, that the group will lose roughly $80 million a year as a consequence of the deal to provide dedicated annual funding to the Metro system, and has had to scale back how many projects it will fund around the region.

Even still, the NVTA was able to send the county $5 million to pay for additional design work on a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro station, falling far short of the county’s $87 million request but still helping push the project forward.

What set the Ballston project apart from Crystal City, Cristol notes, is the work the county still needs to do with Metro to draw up what the construction will actually entail. Broadly, officials know they’d like to build another entrance near the intersection of N. Fairfax Drive and N. Vermont Street to improve access to the spate of new developments on N. Glebe Road.

Beyond that, however, Cristol says the county and Metro need to work out the details. As WMATA grapples with the existential issue of how to bump up service levels and lure riders back to the system, Cristol worries Ballston could get lost in the shuffle.

“It’s not opposition to the project,” Cristol said. “I don’t even think it’s a sense that the project is too complicated, it’s just a bandwidth problem.”

WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld warned County Board members at a Tuesday (June 26) work session that the Ballston project is not without its challenges.

He expects that construction at such a busy station would have “huge impacts on service,” noting that Metro would likely need to build a “temporary platform” while work proceeded. Wiedefeld reiterated his commitment to the project, but he also told the Board that he’d like to see a lot more preliminary work done with such consequences for Orange and Silver line riders at stake.

“We need to make a commitment together that we’re going to spend dollars on it, look at this in detail and make some hard decisions on what will come out of that,” Wiedefeld said. “I’m not comfortable with any of the costs that been bantered around, to be frank, without that level of engineering.”

That sort of tone struck Cristol as good news, even as she urged Metro to address the project sooner rather than later. Fundamentally, she believes additional access to the Ballston station will help WMATA meet its goals of boosting ridership once more, so it should become a natural priority for Wiedefeld and company.

“I do believe this is a project that is good for Metro,” Cristol said. “It would help them get new riders, when they need them the most.”

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Arlington Metro Ridership Drops in Early 2018, As Riders Fail to Return After SafeTrack

Nearly a year after Metro’s “SafeTrack” maintenance blitz wrapped up, Arlingtonians still haven’t returned to the transit system, new data show.

An ARLnow analysis of figures compiled by WMATA and released to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission shows that ridership at Arlington’s 11 Metro stations fell by about 4.1 percent in the first three months of 2018 when compared to the same time frame last year.

Back in early 2017, WMATA was right in the midst of SafeTrack, with large sections of Metro lines closed temporarily and substantial headways for passengers, even at rush hour. But the ridership numbers suggest that any Arlington riders dissuaded from hopping on Metro during the heavy maintenance work have yet to embrace the rail service once more.

ARLnow’s analysis also shows Metro ridership in the county has dropped by about 13.4 percent compared to the same time frame in 2016, before SafeTrack work began.

Metro officials and county leaders say they’re not overly disturbed by these numbers, noting that WMATA ridership as a whole only fell by 1 percent when comparing the first three months of this year to 2017. Yet they also acknowledge that other transportation options are steadily luring riders away from Metro, and that these declining ridership numbers may be a symptom of problems in the county beyond WMATA’s woes.

“This really indicates how our transportation network is being disrupted in ways not just associated with Metro,” said Christian Dorsey, the vice chair of the Arlington County Board and a member of the Metro Board of Directors, while adding that “we’re not going to overreact to the numbers we see in one quarter.”

Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly wrote in an email that ridership in Arlington generally “reflects the ridership trends systemwide.” She says Metro has broadly found that “peak periods are performing less poorly, however off-peak (especially evening) ridership is down much more steeply,” after SafeTrack.

WMATA leaders “are confident that by providing safe, reliable service, Metro can win back riders who may have changed their travel patterns during SafeTrack,” Ly added. Yet she did acknowledge that a handful of different factors have prompted large ridership drops at several Arlington stations this year.

Metro observed one of the largest declines in riders at the Ballston station in the first three months of the year, with a more than 8 percent decline from the same period last year. Ballston also recorded a nearly 20 percent drop in ridership from 2016 to 2018, the largest of any Arlington station over the same time period.

Ly believes that’s largely due to ridership dropping on weekends, “when service is truncated from Wiehle-Reston East to Ballston for track work,” a frequent occurrence for Silver Line riders.

Along the Blue Line, however, there could be more systemic problems.

The station at Reagan National Airport recorded the largest drop of any Arlington location from 2017 to 2018, with a roughly 10.8 percent decrease. Ridership there also declined by 17.5 percent there since 2016, the second largest drop in the county.

Other nearby stations like Crystal City and Pentagon City also have recorded large drops since 2016, to the tune of 12.9 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively.

Ly believes SafeTrack encouraged riders along the Blue and Yellow lines in the area to “permanently switch to Metroway, other local buses and [Virginia Railway Express], where ridership on these routes have stayed up post-SafeTrack.”

But Arlington officials believe their trouble attracting, and keeping, businesses in Crystal City has also contributed to the problem.

“We’ve had a 20 percent office vacancy rate in Crystal City, so it makes sense,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol. “Part of the reason traffic hasn’t increased and Metro ridership is falling is there are fewer people going to jobs there… Having less density than we planned for can be just as detrimental as having more density than we planned for.”

Dorsey agrees that “underemployment” in the area is cause for concern for county leaders — Arlington’s falling tax revenues are due in no small part to problems building up the commercial property tax base, after all. Cristol even floated the possibility of revisiting the area’s sector plan to have a better county framework for solving this particular problem.

But Dorsey stressed that simply bringing more business to Crystal City won’t address all of Metro’s problems, as he feels the “station-to-station dynamics don’t tell the larger narrative of Metro, per se.”

“Some of the overall circumstances surrounding ride-sharing, the increasing use of telework… it’s causing a lot of churn,” Dorsey said.

Ly believes companies like Uber and Lyft are “negatively impacting ridership, especially during off-peak times,” when maintenance work is most likely to cause long headways.

That’s why Dorsey believes following the course outlined by Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, and putting a special focus on improving WMATA’s infrastructure, is the surest path to getting the system back on track. Metro will have an extra $500 million in dedicated annual funding from Virginia, Maryland and D.C. to work with, after all, and Dorsey is willing to be patient to see what that money means for WMATA.

“We know making Metro incredibly safe, easy to find and attractive once you’ve gotten there, are the things you need to do to attract riders,” Dorsey said. “Not everybody has come back yet, but we’re working on it.”

File photo (top). Charts via NVTC.

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ART Bus Real-Time Information Back Down

Real-time arrival information for ART buses is suffering another outage today (April 5).

The outage comes less than a day after the service was restored from a separate, five-day outage.

Eric Balliet, an Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services spokesman, said that today’s outage was due to “intermittent connectivity issues.” He added that there is not an estimated restoration time at the moment.

An ART service alert was issued at around 1 p.m. today regarding the outage, though commuters were tweeting about the outage as early as 10:37 a.m. this morning.

The repeat outage comes the same day that commuters faced a major WMATA service disruption between the East Falls Church and Clarendon Metro stations. WMATA supplements the ART’s bus service, but is separately operated.

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Custis Trail Safety Improvement Project Underway Near Rosslyn

Safety improvements on three Custis Trail intersections have begun.

The project will reconfigure bike lanes at N. Quinn and N. Scott streets, as well as widen the Custis Trail. Other safety improvements include curb extensions, ADA-compliant curb ramps, trail separation from Lee Highway, and crosswalks with higher visibility.

Construction has temporarily closed a lane of Lee Highway. Jersey barriers have been erected to form a bike detour along the right-hand, westbound lane of Lee Highway between N. Scott Street and N. Oak Street.

At least one Arlington bicyclist took to social media to cheer on the bicycling infrastructure, saying the jersey barriers were “better than 99 percent of bike facilities in the U.S.”

In addition to the Lee Highway lane closure, the north legs of the intersection at both N. Scott Street and N. Oak Street will be restricted to one lane. Northbound traffic will be permitted only at the N. Scott Street intersection, while southbound traffic will be permitted only at N. Oak Street intersection, according to the county.

Detour signs will be present to guide drivers out of the North Highlands neighborhood.

The bus stop for the ART 55 and WMATA 3Y buses will be relocated from the construction zone to the west side of the N. Scott Street and Lee Highway intersection. Part of the construction includes plans for an improved bus stop with a bench.

Project funding comes from a Federal Highway Administration bicycle and pedestrian safety program grant.

Work hours are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Monday through Thursday, and between  9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays. The project web page notes that construction is anticipated to wrap up at all three points in May.

The Custis Trail project is being done in concert with the N. Lynn Street esplanade project, for which the Arlington County approved additional funding this week.

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Columbia Pike ‘Premium Bus’ Service to Streamline Routes

(Updated at 2:05 p.m.) Arlington County’s plan for a Columbia Pike corridor “premium bus service network” will start this summer, with more frequent, condensed bus service, improved bus transit stations, and off-vehicle fare collection points in the works.

A Columbia Pike service evaluation briefing from WMATA to the Arlington County Transit Advisory Committee on January 16 laid out the major bus service plan: streamlining eleven 16-line routes down to six main routes, with further streamlining implemented in multiple phases.

Current Columbia Pike corridor service routes include the 16A, B, E, J, and P daily lines and the 16 G, H, and K lines, which run from Columbia Heights West through Pentagon City daily. There are also three peak period bus lines: the 16L, which runs from Annandale, Va., to the Pentagon via Skyline City; the 16X, from Columbia Pike to Washington’s Federal Triangle; and the 16Y, from Columbia Pike to Washington’s Farragut Square.

The first phase of the premium bus service network would eliminate the 16E and J lines, while maintaining daily service for the 16A, G, H, and X. Peak period service will continue along the 16L and Y. The 16X’s extension into Federal Triangle would be maintained only during peak periods.

Phase two would maintain the initial phase’s route streamlining, while adding a transfer-free, bus-to-bus Crystal City connection. The evaluation notes the possibility for weekend service for the 26A bus line, which runs from Annandale to East Falls Church, but that component of the plan is still under consideration.

Further route streamlining would occur under phase three, which would maintain the daily 16A and X routes, as well as the peak period 16L and Y routes, but would strike out the 16G and H lines. A new line — a 16M line to run from Crystal City to Skyline City — would be added. Arlington Transit (ART) routes 41 and 45 would continue serving the Arlington Mill and Columbia Pike corridor after the 16G and H merge, according to Lynn Rivers, the Arlington transit bureau chief and the project’s manager.

Phase three opens up the possibility of an extension of the 16X and Y bus routes service hours, but it’s currently marked as a future consideration. The county is also reviewing transit signal prioritization as a bus rapid transit solution to give buses a head start at traffic lights, allowing for decreased public transit times. Rivers told ARLnow.com that this initiative “can be achieved with minimal impacts to vehicular travel.”

Updated bus transit stations are also in the works, with “near-level boarding” and real-time bus tracking and system information. Passengers would be able to pay for their bus fare prior to entering the bus.

Photos via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Rosslyn Vying for Amazon HQ2 — Rosslyn is being pitched as a possible destination for Amazon’s second headquarters, alongside Crystal City and other Northern Virginia locales. Rosslyn’s main downside is a lack of space for Amazon’s growth ambitions, but the neighborhood does have a sizable office development pipeline, close proximity to Georgetown and D.C., monumental views and numerous transit options. [Washington Business Journal]

Metro Approves Service Guarantee — “Metro’s Board of Directors today approved the Rush Hour Promise program, a first-of-its-kind service guarantee for Metro customers. Beginning with tomorrow morning’s rush hour commute, on Friday, January 26, if a Metrorail or Metrobus customer using a registered SmarTrip card is delayed by 15 minutes or more, Metro will credit the customer’s SmarTrip card for future travel.” [WMATA]

Fire in Cherrydale — Arlington County firefighters extinguished a chimney fire in the Cherrydale neighborhood last night. The fire did not spread and no one was hurt. [Twitter]

Nominations for Park Volunteer Award — Nominations are being accepted through Friday, Feb. 2 for Arlington’s Bill Thomas Outstanding Park Service Award. The award “was established to pay tribute to lifelong parks volunteer Bill Thomas and to honor and encourage those residents who also demonstrate a passionate dedication and support for [Arlington parks] programs, natural resources and public open spaces.” [Arlington County]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Morning Notes

Arlington Chamber Seeking State Help — Possibly in response to the push for housing conservation districts, “the Arlington Chamber of Commerce is asking the General Assembly to ‘serve as a backstop and a safeguard’ against overreach by localities on planning and zoning matters.” [InsideNova]

Reminder: SmarTrip Change Next Week — As of Monday, Metro riders will no longer be able to run a negative balance on their SmarTrip cards. [WMATA]

‘Meet the Chair’ Scheduled — Arlington residents will be able to meet newly-minted Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol on the evening of Jan. 18, when the Leadership Center for Excellence holds its annual Meet the Chair event. [Leadership Center for Excellence]

SoberRide New Year’s Record — A record 1,225 people used the free safe ride service SoberRide on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Thanks to its new partnership with Lyft, SoberRide’s organizer says it “has removed well more than two times as many would-be drunk drivers from Greater Washington’s roadways as compared with the previous year.” [PDF]

District Taco Continues to Expand — Five Guys may be given a run for its money as the most successful Arlington-born restaurant chain. District Taco is now opening a location in the Center City section of Philadelphia. [Eater]

Snow Shovel Contest Winner — “This is Susan. She won our snow shovel, writing that her favorite phase of snow treatment/removal is Phase 1. Brine makes her giddy. Susan’s old shovel is from Nebraska and cracking. Way to go, Susan.” [Twitter]

Photo courtesy @BoccatoGelatos

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Morning Notes

Texas Jack's BBQ in Lyon Park (Flickr pool photo by Alan Kotok)

Arlington Population Continues to Rise — The latest Census Bureau estimate of Arlington’s population is 230,050, a 0.9 percent rise over the previous year. [InsideNova]

LaHood to Review WMATA — Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been tapped by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to conduct an independent review of Metro’s “operating, governance, and financial conditions.” The review will “develop recommendations for potential WMATA reforms, including mitigating growth in annual operating costs and sustainable funding.” [Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Washington Post]

Private Investigators Set Up Shop in Arlington — A group of private investigators is trying to solve the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich last July. The group, which does not have the support of Rich’s family, is working out of a “war room” in Arlington as it tries to piece together clues about the fatal shooting in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. [DCist, WJLA]

County Board Hears Complaint About Poo — A resident’s complaint at a County Board meeting, about a homeless man “appropriating” a bus stop in Rosslyn, led to the following sentence in the Sun Gazette: “County-government spokesman Mary Curtius said it was ‘exceedingly rare’ to find human waste at bus stops.” [InsideNova]

Schaeffer’s Favorite Arlington Things — Eric Schaeffer, co-founder and artistic director of Shirlington’s Signature Theatre, recently shared some of his favorite local spots. Among them: French store Le Marche and Irish pub Samuel Beckett’s, both in Shirlington, along with Pupatella pizzeria in Bluemont and P.F. Chang’s in Ballston. [Northern Virginia Magazine]

Flickr pool photo by Alan Kotok

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Morning Notes

Christmas tree sale at the Catholic church on 23rd Street S. in Aurora Highlands

Clarendon Ballroom Battles Alt-Right Blitz — After beating up on Arlington’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation earlier this month, the alt-right faction seeking to hold inauguration rallies and parties in Arlington has focused its attention on the Clarendon Ballroom. The Ballroom, one alt-right leader alleges, turned away their planned “DeploraBall” due to political pressure. The Ballroom, however, says the organizers never actually signed a contract. Since then, the Ballroom has been receiving “hundreds of slanderous, dangerous, vulgar and threatening posts and tweets,” along with threatening phone calls. [NBC Washington, Washington Post]

Library Director’s Christmas Playlist — Arlington Public Library Director Diane Kresh has released her annual “mix tape of seasonal favorites” on the library blog. This year’s list is a Spotify playlist that starts with Diana Krall’s rendition of “Let It Snow” and concludes, on a unique-to-2016 note, with “World Spins Madly On” by The Weepies. [Arlington Public Library]

Six Fired by Metro in EFC Derailment — Following an investigation, Metro has fired six track inspectors and supervisors and demoted several others in the wake of July’s East Falls Church train derailment. Additional firings are in the works. [WJLA]

Arlington Community Foundation Grants — The Arlington Community Foundation has approved grants to 26 local nonprofits and school, totally nearly $100,000. [Patch]

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Metro ‘SafeTrack’ Worker Treated for Dehydration

Metro worker suffering dehydration on the Orange/Silver line tracks along I-66 (courtesy photo)

Working on the railroad is hard work.

That was in evidence this morning when a Metro contractor who was on the team performing “SafeTrack” maintenance work on the tracks near the East Falls Church station reportedly passed out from dehydration.

Firefighters and paramedics responded to the section of track along I-66 and transported the worker to a local hospital for evaluation.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said the agency is taking steps to make sure its workers are well hydrated.

“Obviously, this is hard, physical labor on a hot and cloudless day,” Stessel told ARLnow.com. “We are providing water and sports drinks to all workers on site, and requiring frequent breaks — but the lack of shade is really the issue.”

Courtesy photo

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UPDATED: Here’s How the Metro ‘Safety Surge’ Will Affect Arlington

Weekend Metro track work outside of Reagan National Airport station (file photo)

(Updated at 4:35 p.m.) Metro has released its final version of the SafeTrack plan, beginning with work between the East Falls Church and Ballston stations.

This morning Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld outlined the agency’s plan for working through Metrorail’s deferred maintenance backlog.

The “safety surge,” dubbed SafeTrack, “accomplishes in one year, work that otherwise would take about three years to complete.” It comes at a time when major Metro track problems and electrical fires seem to be increasingly commonplace.

The plan involves fifteen long-duration track outages between June 4 and May 8, 2017, to allow for extensive track work.

The goal: to achieve “safety and state of good repair of basic track structure.”

So what can Arlington riders expect? First, there will be a moratorium on early system openings and closings — the system will close at midnight, seven day a week.

Additionally, the following track outages are planned.

Metro SafeTrack logoJuly 5-12
National Airport to Braddock Road

Impact: Entire line segment shut down
Service Reduction: Trains running every 12 minutes at Virginia Blue and Yellow Line stations

July 12-19
National Airport to Pentagon City
Impact: Entire line segment shut down
Service Reduction: Trains running every 12 minutes at Virginia Blue and Yellow Line stations

Aug. 20-Sept. 6
Eastern Market to Minnesota Ave/Benning Road 
Impact: Entire line segment shut down
Service Reductions: Three lines affected. Orange and Silver lines running every 10 minutes, Blue Line running every 12 minutes.

Nov. 2-12
West Falls Church to East Falls Church
Impact: Continuous single tracking
Service Reduction: Trains on Orange and Silver lines each running every 16 minutes

Nov. 12-Dec. 5
East Falls Church to Ballston
Impact: Continuous single tracking
Service Reduction: Trains on Silver Line running every 18 minutes, Orange Line trains from Vienna to Ballston running every 18 minutes

Dec. 6-24
Pentagon to Rossyln
Impact: Entire line segment shut down, Arlington Cemetery station closed
Service Reduction: Reduced service at all Blue Line stations

March 6-14
West Falls Church to East Falls Church
Impact: Continuous single tracking
Service Reduction: Trains on Orange and Silver lines each running every 16 minutes

April 16-May 8
Braddock Road to Huntington/Van Dorn 
Impact: Continuous single tracking
Service Reduction: Trains on Blue Line running every 18 minutes

In order to maximize productivity, all of the track outages will be continuous and will affect rush hour service. For the line segment shut downs, buses will replace trains around the station closures.

The safety surge will not only affect Metro riders, it’s expected to affect those who drive as well, in the form of additional traffic.

Here’s what Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) had to say about the plan.

After the jump, the full press release from Metro.

Metro General Manager/CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld today released SafeTrack, an expanded track work plan to improve Metrorail safety and restore service reliability.

Wiedefeld’s SafeTrack plan includes 15 “safety surges” over the next year that will accelerate maintenance on Metro’s rail system from the ballast up. By closing the system at midnight on weekends and expanding weekday maintenance opportunities, the plan addresses FTA and NTSB safety recommendations and deferred maintenance backlogs while restoring track infrastructure to good health.

SafeTrack accomplishes in one year, work that otherwise would take about three years to complete.

Fifteen “safety surges” are planned that will allow track crews to exponentially increase productivity and achieve safety results for customers faster. These long-duration track outages use either around-the-clock single tracking or line-segment shutdowns that will impact rush hour commutes. Metrorail riders will be encouraged to consider using alternate travel options while safety surge work is in effect on their line.

In addition, Wiedefeld announced a moratorium on early openings and late closings. Closure of the Metrorail system at midnight seven days a week will begin Friday, June 3.

“This plan is going to take some sacrifice from all of us,” Wiedefeld said. “But it is clear that the current approach is not working, more aggressive action is necessary.”

Following the review and consideration of traffic mitigation and alternate travel options by the Department of Transportation (DOT) agencies in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, regional law enforcement, Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Department of Homeland Security and General Services Administration (GSA), a final version of SafeTrack will be released for riders on May 16.

“Metro’s safety culture change depends on support from the entire region,” said Wiedefeld. “We have to begin by understanding that safety trumps inconvenience.”

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Morning Notes

"Rosslyn Noir" (Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf)

Woman Struck By Metrobus Files Suit — A woman who was struck and pinned under a Metrobus in Crystal City last month is suing WMATA for $25 million. The woman, who suffered a broken arm and crush injuries to her left leg, worked as a personal trainer and bartender. She’s still recovering in a hospital, according to the lawsuit. [Associated Press]

Rhodeside Grill Anniversary — Rhodeside Grill (1836 Wilson Blvd) is celebrating its 20th anniversary tonight. [ARLnow]

Letter Writer: Muslim Town Hall Was Partisan — A Muslim Town Hall at Arlington Central Library billed as a “non-partisan community event” included lots of criticism of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, says an attendee who wrote to the Sun Gazette. [InsideNova]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Morning Notes

Goldenrod (Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley)

More Cars on Local Streets Due to I-66 Plans? — Will plans to toll I-66 inside the Beltway during rush hour send cars spilling onto local streets in Arlington? Not exactly. Traffic studies suggest the opposite will happen: more cars will use the highway rather than seek alternate routes through Arlington. [Washington Post]

Metro Begins Installation of Cable for Cell Service — Metro has begun the process of installing 100 miles of cable in Metrorail tunnels in order to allow mobile phone and better emergency radio coverage. [WMATA]

Optimism from Arlington’s New Metro Board Member — Freshman Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey is serving as the county’s representative on the WMATA board. Though he says the agency is facing “a fair number of problems,” he says Metro expects “to see some significant improvements” in 2016. [InsideNova]

Potholes on GW Parkway — The northbound lanes of the GW Parkway had to be closed from Spout Run to the Beltway for pothole repair last night. This morning, crews were dispatched to fill potholes in the southbound lanes. [Twitter]

County Combines Budget Hearings — In previous years, Arlington held separate budget hearings to discuss proposed expenditures and the tax rate. This year, those topics are being combined and members of the public can weigh in on either at two budget hearings: one on Tuesday, March 29 and another on Thursday, March 31. The county is also accepting online budget feedback. [Arlington County]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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New Metro GM Promises Change, But Tempers Expectations

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld addresses the Arlington Committee of 100

You know a top executive’s gig is tough when an entire room applauds after someone gets up and says, “thank you for taking the job.”

That’s what happened Wednesday night at the Arlington Committee of 100 meeting at Marymount University, featuring new Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.

Wiedefeld started the night by telling the crowd he has been fighting a cold since the January blizzard, when Metro shut down for a couple days, and will be taking a decidedly unglamorous trip to Lincoln, Nebraska later this month to check on the manufacturer of Metro’s problematic 7000-series railcars.

Turning around Metro is an exhausting job and Wiedefeld sounded, well, a bit exhausted.

During the audience question-and-answer session, he was asked whether Metro should lower the expectations of riders for the reliability of a two-track system built in the 1970s for a sleepier capital city

“I do think we need to be more realistic about what’s achievable and what’s not,” Wiedefeld said. “You can only fit so much through a small tube, that’s just reality. We need to do a better job of educating the public, for sure.”

Despite that, Wiedefeld acknowledged Metro’s problems, took responsibility for rider frustration and promised change.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld addresses the Arlington Committee of 100 (as seen in a video camera monitor)“Failure in some of the basic service delivery,” he said, listing Metro’s woes. “Communication isn’t to the standard it should be. In some cases there’s been a total lack of transparency.”

“I don’t think we’re doing the best we can do,” he continued. “We’re not putting out the service the best we could, and that’s the first thing we need to do.”

Under Wiedefeld, who was formerly the CEO of BWI Airport in Maryland, Metro has three main priorities: improve safety, improve basic service reliability, and get its fiscal house in order.

Wiedefeld is approaching the challenge from the bottom up: he’s been trying to spend as much time as possible with Metro’s front-line employees: those maintaining the rails, driving the buses and cleaning the trains. He said Metro’s headquarters and leaders have been too removed from its day-to-day operations on the ground, something he wants to improve.

Wiedefeld has also been making an effort to be a more visible leader in the region. That’s what brought him to the Committee of 100. At the meeting, Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey marveled that Wiedefeld was the first Metro general manager she had actually met in person in all of her years of public service.

The realities of Metrorail’s maintenance needs may require some fundamental changes in the way Metro operates. Poor maintenance, after all, is what’s causing much of Metro’s current unreliability. The agency doesn’t even have enough working rail cars to meet its promises about eight-car trains. The delivery of the new 7000-series cars — only 80 are in service so far — will help, but they must be maintained, in addition to track and the myriad other components of the Metro system.

“We need to take a hard look at how we’re doing things, particularly on the maintenance side,” Wiedefeld said. “These are big, complex systems.”

Metro General Manager Paul WiedefeldTo improve safety, Metro is “churning away” at more than 200 issues identified by the Federal Transit Administration, following last year’s fatal incident at the L’Enfant Metro station. Wiedefeld says his family rides Metro and he’s confident of its safety, but there’s still plenty room for improvement.

Aside from the safety of the system itself, crime in Metro trains and stations is also a concern. A younger member of the audience asked about YouTube videos of violent encounters and the murder of a recent college graduate in a station last summer.

“Statistically, it’s a very very safe system,” he said, citing the statistic of six “part-one” crimes per million passengers. Wiedefeld, however, again said there was more to be done. Metro Transit Police should be more visible in stations, he said, helping to deter crime. It also wouldn’t hurt if criminals knew the long odds they face when committing crimes in Metro stations, either.

“Particularly on the rail side, we catch them most times, thanks to all the cameras,” he said. “You might want to do that somewhere else, because we’re going to get you.”

Though optimistic about the feasibility of turning Metro around, Wiedefeld was short on some specifics. Labor-related costs represent more than 70 percent of WMATA’s budget and critics have questioned whether union contracts are preventing some needed changes and employee accountability.

“It’s in the construct of a very complicated labor environment that we work under,” Wiedefeld said. “That’s not an excuse, that’s just the way it is.”

Wiedefeld said he’s hoping Metro can help spur local leaders into setting up a dedicated regional funding source for Metro, like other transit systems have. The goal isn’t to secure more money for the system, he said, it’s to allow Metro to focus more on region-wide priorities rather than catering to the whims of the localities that have to allocate money every year to keep Metro running.

Metro will also benefit from being run more like a business, with more rigor behind the prioritization of capital expenses, he said.

“We have a responsibility to run this as a business, even though we’re in a public sector environment,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re using the dollars efficiently and that we’re showing people where we’re spending the dollars.”

Metro’s turnaround is crucial to the region, for which Metro is a part of daily life and of its urban identity.

“Mall, monuments, Metro,” Wiedefeld said, referring to the experience of visitors to the city.

“There’s no debate about the importance of this system to the region… and to the environment,” he said. “We have to make sure it performs because it does drive the economy, it does drive daily life.”

At a time when ridership is declining to levels not seen in a decade, and rider satisfaction continues to fall, there’s little indication that the job of fixing Metro will be getting easier anytime soon. Wiedefeld, however, said he’s committed.

“Clearly there’s a lot to do… we didn’t get here overnight,” Metro’s leader concluded. “I’m not expecting you to do anything but say: ‘that’s great, but go fix it.'”

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Morning Notes

Crane from JBG's Central Place development in Rosslyn

Garvey Named 2016 Arlington County Board Chair — Libby Garvey, who is facing a challenge in this year’s Democratic primary, has been named the Chair of the Arlington County Board. Articles to follow.

Update: Family Given Lease Extension — An Arlington family with a disabled son has been given a 30-day lease extension, after they went to the media to protest the landlord’s reported refusal to renew their lease. The family said the manager of Columbia Pike apartment complex complained about them making too much noise. [Washington Post]

Dorsey to Serve on Metro Board — Christian Dorsey, who along with Katie Cristol began his first County Board term on Jan. 1, has been chosen to serve as Arlington’s non-voting representative on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors. [InsideNova]

Reminder: Arlington Is the Smallest Governing County — Arlington County is the smallest self-governing county in the United States. Kalawao County in Hawaii, New York County in Manhattan and Bristol County in Rhode Island are smaller, but don’t have their own separate county governments. [Arlington County]

Favola Proposes Allowing Cigarette Tax Hike — State Sen. Barbara Favola (D) has proposed a bill that would allow Arlington and Fairfax counties to double local cigarette taxes. The extra funds would be used to support education. [InsideNova]

Free Breakfast at Northside Social — It’s unclear whether the promotion is still going on as of publication time, but Northside Social this morning was giving away free breakfasts and coffee courtesy of the new CBS show Angel from Hell, starring Jane Lynch. [Twitter, Twitter]

Christmas Tree Collection Starts Today — Christmas tree collection in Arlington County starts today and runs through Friday, Jan. 15. Trees will be collected curbside on regular trash collection days. Those who live in apartments or condos without county trash collection can bring their trees to the Solid Waste Bureau near Shirlington. [ARLnow]

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