Photo by Bryan Mills on Flickr.

WMATA is considering closing the Red Line’s western branch for 6 weeks to repair significant leaking. If it happens, riders will absolutely need good alternatives for getting around. One solution may be enhanced bus service between different parts of the Red Line.

The section of the Red Line between Friendship Heights and Medical Center opened in 1984 and runs under Wisconsin Avenue. Portions of the subway tunnel are leaking, harming equipment like switch components, track circuits, and rails. The water damage means Metro must replace them more frequently, creating more disruptions for riders.

Metro has tried for years to address the leaks, but they require a more durable fix that can’t be done in a long weekend. As a result, Metro is thinking about a long-term closure and is doing engineering studies to see what work is needed. According to spokesperson Dan Stessel, it’s too early to know how long the closure would last, which stations would close, or if it’s even necessary. Stessel says any closure would be over a year away.

Repairs could impact thousands of riders

While Metro has yet to decide on the exact scope of the project, they have announced that the leaking is the worst at Friendship Heights and Medical Center stations. Bethesda station, currently slated for a major renovation, sits in between. A long term closure would likely mean a gap in the Red Line between Tenleytown and Grosvenor.

According to WMATA’s May 2012 ridership data, on weekdays over 97,000 riders travel through the area that would be closed by this work. Around 34,000 people travel through the area during each of the afternoon and evening peaks. A closure like this would negatively impact most of these commuters. It would likely increase traffic congestion in the corridor as well, affecting other residents and businesses.

However, there may be no other option. We’ll know more when Metro has completed its engineering studies. But other systems have dealt with long-term closures. Right now, the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line is closed south of downtown for a major rebuilding.

Bus lanes and enhanced service could give riders options

The idea of a long-term closure is still in its early phase. Metro has not announced for sure that there will be a closure, which stations the agency would close, or how they would approach shuttle service.

However, here are some ways Metro could mitigate a closure between Tenleytown and Grosvenor.


Map by the author.


Temporary bus lanes could minimize delays for shuttle riders. A shuttle bus ride on Wisconsin Avenue from Grosvenor to Tenleytown would be significantly slower than the Red Line subway. Repurposing one lane of Wisconsin Avenue for buses could speed riders through the gap. It could also demonstrate the effectiveness of bus lanes, which the county is considering for its BRT network.

Beltway shoulder lanes for buses could quickly shuttle riders to the eastern branch of the Red Line. The two Montgomery branches of the Red Line are actually fairly close to each other. It may be faster for riders headed toward downtown Washington to go over to Forest Glen, on the Glenmont side of the Red Line.

However, the Beltway can get very congested during peak hours. One way to make this connection more reliable could be rebuilding the shoulders on the Beltway so buses could use them.

Enhanced bus service on Veirs Mill Road and East-West Highway would help connect riders to the other side of the Red Line. Metro will need an exclusive bus bridge to get riders around the gap in the Red Line, but it is also important to provide other options for riders.

The Q Line runs between Rockville and Wheaton on Veirs Mill Road. It is already one of the busiest bus lines in Maryland, and a Red Line closure might increase ridership. Introducing a limited-stop service would create a faster link between Rockville and Wheaton. It might even be possible for a new limited-stop service in this corridor to continue beyond the Red Line closure, as a lasting positive impact.

The J4 line is a limited-stop service between Bethesda, Silver Spring, and College Park. It currently runs only during rush hour. During the closure, Metro could run buses more frequently and throughout the day, giving riders bound for Bethesda an additional alternative to the Red Line. Many other routes connect the western and eastern arms of the Red Line, and they could benefit from increased or modified service as well.

Transit signal priority and queue jumping lanes on Wisconsin or other streets handling additional bus riders would be another way to make shuttles more effective. Signal priority extends green lights for buses or delays the light from changing to red long enough for the bus to get through. Queue jumping lanes allow the bus to skip to the front of the line at red lights.

Increased MARC service would be a very difficult option. CSX Railroad owns the tracks, and so far has been very resistant to additional commuter trains. If Metro persuaded them to allow a temporary service increase, riders could have a quick way to get from Rockville to downtown.

Even without additional trains, it may be possible for MARC to run longer trains. New coaches are currently being built, and that could free up some equipment if it arrives in time.

Station improvements, especially at Grosvenor could be helpful. The mezzanine at Grosvenor has an opening intended for a future staircase or escalator to the platform. With a shuttle operation starting there, it would be helpful to increase the capacity of the station by adding a staircase (even a temporary one) at that location.

The mezzanine at Tenleytown is similarly hamstrung, with just one set of escalators connecting to the platform. Metro should also look at adding a set of stairs on the south side of the mezzanine kiosk to increase capacity.

Obstacles

Repurposing travel lanes on Wisconsin and constructing shoulder bus lanes on the Beltway is an attractive option, but it would not be easy. The same can be said for signal priority. On these roads, the Maryland State Highway Administration has the final say. It may be difficult to convince them of the necessity. Additionally, it’s likely that commuters in the corridor will push back against taking road space away from cars.

The size of Metro’s bus fleet may limit the agency’s ability to improve bus service. Right now, most buses are already deployed for peak hour service. With enough notice, it might be possible for WMATA to borrow buses from other agencies, but it’s not as simple as merely saying “go.” The agency would probably need some lead time in order to prepare for a long-term shuttle operation on weekdays.

Closing the Red Line is a drastic step for Metro and could be very disruptive for all commuters, not just transit riders. But this is also an opportunity for Metro, MARC, SHA and Montgomery County to experiment with different ways to improve transit service. If all parties involved are willing to think big, this closure might be an opportunity to create a template for future improvements.

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Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.