Big marathons lean heavily on transit, whether it’s local rail systems or networks of shuttle buses, to get thousands of participants to their start lines. However, due to SafeTrack, Metro will not be an option for the more than 30,000 runners in the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) and its associated races this October for the first time in years.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Metro has historically opened two hours early, at 5:00 am, for the race. This allows runners to get to the start line near Arlington Cemetery from all points in the system well ahead of the 7:55 am start.

On average, 24,000 runners use Metro to get the race, according to the MCM’s organizers.

This year, however, Metro will open at its usual Sunday time of 7:00 am on race day, October 30th. This is not early enough for most runners to take Metro to what was the fourth largest marathon in the USA in 2015.

Instead, the organizers will offer parking in Crystal City and Pentagon City with runner-only shuttle buses to the starting line. Runners will also be able to begin the race for up to an hour after the 7:55 am start. Arlington Transit will run extra buses for runners as well.

The race has also changed its course slightly, adding sections in Arlington and shortening ones in DC. This was necessary because some road closures had been planned far in advance and the times couldn’t be shifted; this is also why the organizers can’t just delay the start.

Metro says no exceptions

WMATA announced a blanket one-year moratorium on early openings and late closings as part of its SafeTrack plan this May. The moratorium has stood since then for any event, from concerts to Nationals games and now the MCM.

Metro has not wavered on the moratorium, even under pressure from local pols including DC mayor Muriel Bowser.

To date, WMATA has only considered adding to the time it needs for maintenance work, seeking board approval in July to make a “temporary” suspension of late night service permanent.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Opinions are mixed on Metro’s decision

The majority of participants in large marathons take transit to start lines, with races all over the world encouraging runners to rides trains or buses. The benefit of existing transit networks is just that: the network. With one in place, race organizers do not need to create a network of shuttle buses that can collect runners from the various corners of a metro area.

While Metro does need to accomplish the SafeTrack repairs and the reduce its backlog of deferred maintenance, not opening early for the MCM, when the vast majority of runners ride the train, is far more detrimental to them than not staying open late for, say, a Nationals game, when on average only 11,000 attendees ride Metro.

Metro could be more transparent about what it needs to accomplish when it refuses to adjust its hours slightly for large events. In the case of the MCM, what work will be done during those two hours that cannot be done another time? Knowing this would help people understand if Metro really needs the time or just wants to stick to one standard for simplicity’s sake.

Elizabeth Whitton feels Metro isn’t being unreasonable:

"I’ve organized large scale athletic events in the past and take an opposite view of the issue. For these large scale events (across the country, not just DC), the usual protocol is for the event organizers to request additional public services (transit, port-a-potties, police, etc) and then work out agreements with the necessary government entities. Most local governments charge fees in exchange for additional services.

I read this news as: Metro does not feel it is mutually beneficial to provide additional rail service to the MCM start due to its on-going Safetrack program.

Realistically, the marathon could change its start time. Lots of reasons why this is not practical, though. For one, the race has a permit to use the 14th Street Bridge for a specific time of day. The logistics of changing this permit would be a nightmare.

Bottom line: Metro should not receive a lot of the blame for this. It is the responsibility of the race organizers to ensure participants can access the start line.”

Metro certainly is not entirely to blame in this situation. The MCM organizers have already made some lousy decisions for this year’s race, for example, moving the pre-race expo, where the majority of participants go to pick up their bibs and race packets, to the transit-desert of National Harbor from the transit-rich Washington Convention Center.

Gray Kimbrough thinks that some intermediate threshold is warranted.

"I understand that Metro can’t open early or stay open late for every event. They absolutely need to have set thresholds so that it’s not up in the air.

It seems like now is as good a time as any to come up with reasonable thresholds.  Or is Metro’s stand really going to be that SafeTrack can never be delayed or altered for any events? Will they continue to close down lines through the Cherry Blossom Festival, for example? Are they not going to alter anything for the next inauguration either?”

Canaan Merchant thinks the situation presents some opportunities for Metro to consider:

"Metro could charge more money to organizations who want to hold an early or late event. Or Metro could see if the work that they’re planning on even affects downtown areas; if not, then the system could maybe open in some parts and not the others.

In general, as much as Metro needs to get its maintenance straight, they need to think long and hard about turning away easy ridership boosts like this one as well.”

What do you think?