Delays have piled up for the “nation’s subway” after a mid-October derailment prompted Metro to ground its fleet of new 7000-series cars and fire up mothballed older trains, including some with smell-absorbing carpet that gets extra musty on rainy days.
As commuters struggle to get to work on time, faced with long waits and standing-room-only cars, the effects have been felt throughout Washington — including on Capitol Hill.
For congressional staffers, the Metro debacle has come at a strange time, as more of them returned to daily commuting after a pandemic hiatus and as lawmakers finally sealed the deal on a sprawling package that will provide $550 billion in new spending for infrastructure programs around the country, including public transit.
“I think for a lot of people, this is the first time since the onset of the pandemic that they’re in such close quarters with strangers,” said Sarah Cronin, digital director for the House Select Committee on Modernization. “On top of the frustration of these screwy commutes, you have the anxiety of being a sardine in a can with a bunch of other miserable people.”
Cronin, who commutes from the Virginia side of the Potomac River, said she’s seen her normally 20-minute commute balloon to sometimes over an hour, even though she doesn’t have to switch trains. To her relief, she’s usually not the only one.
“On a normal day, pre-Metro craziness, I could probably get away with squeaking out the door by 8:40,” she said. “I do feel better when I see a huge flood of other staffers getting off of Metro around 9:30, because I know I’m not the only one.”
With the train shortages expected to linger through November, the agency has brought cars out of retirement. “I ended up on a carpet car last week for the first time in a year or two … it made me think about one summer when the Metro kept catching on fire. That was when all the trains were still carpeted — that kind of brought me back,” Cronin said.
While staffers have had to cope with the delays during an especially busy season on the Hill, their bosses have been largely immune to the woes afflicting Metro. That’s because hardly any of them ride. Instead of braving the subterranean trains to Union Station or Capitol South, most lawmakers arrive at the Capitol by car.
Still, this latest rough patch for Washington’s transit system has lawmakers paying attention, especially given the infrastructure push in Congress. At least one Washington-area member has vowed to hold hearings on Metro’s handling of the derailment and reports that the cars’ wheel alignment that led to the issue had been known since 2017.
“My subcommittee, working with [D.C. Democratic Del.] Eleanor Holmes Norton and her subcommittee in [Transportation and Infrastructure], will be holding hearings,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Government Operations Subcommittee.
The Virginia Democrat, whose district includes part of the Washington suburbs, occasionally catches Metro, but more often drives. In 2015, he hopped on a 7000-series car with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-Va., in an event unveiling the new additions to the fleet.
Norton, chair of T&I’s Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said the last thing the region needed was for Metro to “crack up” at a time when more began commuting again.
“I represent 700,000 people, many of whom do take Metro, and I’m on the committee with jurisdiction over Metro,” she said. “So it’s of exquisite interest to me, regardless of the fact that I drive most places in the District.”
Wait times have been slowly bouncing back after the derailment, which led Metro to yank 60 percent of its rail cars on Oct. 17. As of Monday, intervals had improved to 12 minutes on the Red Line and 20 minutes on the Green and Yellow lines, Metro spokesperson Kristie Swink Benson said in a press briefing. But headways remained at 30 minutes on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines.
Democratic Rep. David Trone’s Maryland district includes some of the Red Line, though he’s not a Metro rider because there’s not a stop close enough to his home to make it practical. He pointed to increased funding for Metro and other public transportation systems in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the House cleared late Friday night, sending it to President Joe Biden’s desk after weeks of false starts.
The bill includes billions for public transit across the U.S. For the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority specifically, it provides an annual investment of $150 million through 2030. The interstate system is funded by a combination of federal dollars and contributions from D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
Before the pandemic, federal workers made up a substantial chunk of Metro’s ridership. About a third of daily riders were federal workers, and a quarter of rail trips were taken by feds, according to a 2015 study. But numbers dropped dramatically during the pandemic, and it’s unclear what the future of commuting will look like for staffers on the Hill.
Raymond Rodriguez, communications director for New York Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres, who came to the Washington area from the Big Apple late last year, said Metro is “infinitely” different from the NYC system, which runs 24/7 and has sprawling tentacles that take riders all over the city.
Like Cronin, he travels from Virginia and said he’s finding himself waking up earlier and refreshing the Metro app to make sure he times his walk from home to the station correctly.
If Rodriguez is running late, like many, he’s grabbing an Uber or Lyft, but prices have soared.
“It’s made things difficult not only in my professional life, but my personal life,” he said, adding that sometimes he’s had to cancel plans with friends.
If more lawmakers in Congress took Metro, it might give them more context on the difficulties riders are facing, he said.
“I think the closer you are to the issue, the more urgent it becomes,” he said.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, one of the few known senator-Metro riders, said he takes mass transit in both his home state of Connecticut and in D.C.
The Democrat said he’s not taken Metro in the last year, mainly because of pandemic-related safety concerns, but will again as the pandemic recedes.
“I think it’s important for us to use mass transit because it sets an example,” he said. “But it also helps educate us as to what needs to be fixed.”