We first heard about Metro’s hope to permanently cut late-night service in July. Now, Metro has released three specific scenarios to cut late night service, but it offers still few specifics on why it’s necessary or what alternatives there can be.

Photo by Howard Ignatius on Flickr.

At the regular WMATA Board of Directors meeting on Thursday, Metro staff will ask for formal approval to hold public hearings to cut late-night service. This is a legally required step before Metro can make any service cuts.

In July, we heard an initial proposal to end service at midnight Monday to Saturday and 10 pm on Sundays. Following public outcry, Metro has devised two other options, which staff estimate will harm about the same number of riders.

According to the presentation for Thursday’s meeting, if the board approves public hearings, public comment would be open from October 1 to 24 with a public hearing on October 17. The board could vote to cut service in December, and the new hours would take effect next July.

The presentation also says Metro will take public input on ways to extend bus service to meet some late-night riders’ needs, but offers no specifics.

Metro does need more maintenance, but is this necessary?

These closings will give Metro 8 to 8½ more hours a week when the system is closed, which will allow for more track work. It’s certainly true Metro needs to catch up on track work, and single-tracking constrains workers too much so they can’t get as much done.

Beyond the urgent safety-related fixes, Metro could use track time to fix lighting in stations (which requires closing the stations), installing cables for cell phone access in the tunnels, and much more, said General Manager Paul Wiedefeld when a few Greater Greater Washington contributors and I spoke with him recently.

However, what this proposal does not explain is why closing the entire system at once is necessary. Why not, for instance, pick one line per weekend to close at night? Heck, if they need more track time, it might even be fine to close a line for the entire weekend.

Surely the track workers can’t be on every line at once.

Wiedefeld said he worries this would be too confusing for riders. Instead of knowing the system was closed, they would have to keep track of which lines are open. Plus, already low late night ridership would be even lower without the opportunity to transfer between as many lines.

I’m still not persuaded. Metro certainly could devise clear infographics to communicate, and if it made the closures really simple, such as one line (or a set of lines that overlap) per weekend, it could work.

We shouldn’t armchair quarterback Wiedefeld’s difficult job, but cutting late night service permanently will force a lot of people to give up on Metro and end the aspiration for it to offer a comprehensive alternative to driving. Many late night workers and entertainment patrons, especially those who live far from their jobs and destinations, will be stuck, as Tracy Loh explained this morning.

Riders should have more information before public comment and hearings

Maybe a one-line-at-a-time closure is worse for other reasons, but the board should ask about this and other options that don’t give up on service entirely for parts of the day. They should ask for this before the proposal goes to public hearings.

The presentation also suggests adding late-night bus service, but has no specifics. I hope the planners are hard at work on devising the best ways to serve the most people without Metrorail. But it seems that riders will have to comment on the rail proposals without seeing what alternatives exist.

How about lengthening the temporary SafeTrack closure to give time to really figure out these alternatives before, not after, committing to permanently cut service? Because permanent is a big deal. Riders deserve to have all the details and a fully baked plan first.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.