Photo by Russell James Smith on Flickr.
SafeTrack, Metro’s year-long program to fix its rail system and address safety problems, begins June 4. However, Prince George’s County officials have not taken sufficient steps to help residents get around, such as designating HOV lanes or using school buses to shuttle people to and from available Metro stations.
The planned repairs to the rail system will cause huge problems for the region’s commuters over the next year. The pain will be particularly acute for Prince George’s commuters between June 18 and July 3, when all Metrorail service across the Anacostia River on the Orange, Blue, and Silver lines will be shut down for a 16-day closure of the Potomac Avenue and Stadium-Armory stations.
More than 25,000 riders a day who commute by Metrorail from Prince George’s County and DC’s Ward 7 on those lines will be completely cut off from downtown Washington and northern Virginia during that period.
Metro is depending on local jurisdictions to assist in the mitigation effort
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld stressed that SafeTrack “will require regional coordination, resources, communication, and shared pain.” Specifically, Wiedefeld requested that local jurisdictions provide additional support and input in the form of “traffic control, parking restrictions, bus support, HOV restrictions, etc.”
Some localities have already answered Metro’s call. For example, Fairfax County has agreed to provide supplemental express buses from Reston and Vienna to the Pentagon during the first scheduled SafeTrack surge. Arlington County will use higher-capacity buses on selected routes, convert some streets to bus-only, eliminate some street parking, and adjust traffic signal operations as needed.
Prince George’s, by contrast, is not currently planning to take these kinds of steps. Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) spokesperson Paulette Jones stated that “Metrorail plays an unparalleled role in regional mobility” but that “Prince George’s County cannot replicate or significantly supplement [Metrorail’s] function” without making dramatic, costly, and inconvenient changes to the county’s current transportation system.
DPW&T’s Associate Director of Transportation, D’Andrea Walker, added that Prince George’s County does not have the same resources as Fairfax and Arlington and that DPW&T cannot afford to do anything other than try to inform residents of alternative transportation options such as ride sharing, teleworking, and working during off-peak hours.
Sadly, DPW&T is missing the point. No one is suggesting that Prince George’s can instantaneously replicate Metrorail’s service, even if it had unlimited resources. But the county can and should do a better job of mitigating the impact of Metro’s service disruptions—and it should be able to do so without breaking its piggy bank.
One idea that I’ve put forward before was for Prince George’s to use school buses to provide supplemental shuttle service during the 16-day shutdown period. The Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) Transportation Department maintains a fleet of 1,247 school buses and employs 2,006 drivers and attendants. Those buses will be idle, since school won’t be in session. Why can’t DPW&T work with PGCPS to place some of those buses, drivers, and attendants into service to assist with SafeTrack mitigation?
Image from PGCPS.
When I asked, nobody at the county gave me a reason that this wasn’t feasible. Sure, the county will need to spend some money to run these buses and do the other things required to provide effective mitigation. That’s what government has to do when responding to any crisis. We seem to understand that intrinsically when it comes to things like snow removal. This is just a different kind of transportation crisis.
HOV lanes will help move people, not threaten the public
DPW&T’s spokeswoman, Jones, said the agency has not explored the option of creating bus lanes on certain arterial roads because it believes such lanes “would dramatically increase congestion, idling time, and pollution within [those] corridors.” Yet when I asked her for the specific facts or studies that support this claim, she wasn’t able to cite any.
That’s not surprising, for as the graphic below shows, buses transport people much more efficiently than single-occupancy vehicles. And while some have questioned the environmental benefits of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, most serious studies show that they result in reduced emissions and better air quality.
There is still time for County Executive Rushern Baker and DPW&T to come up with real and workable solutions to avoid this looming transportation crisis. You can encourage them to do so by signing Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s action alert.
A version of this post appeared on Prince George’s Urbanist.