- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

If Washingtonians thought they were winter-weary before the great Presidents Day storm, digging out demonstrated the best and the worst in us.

First the best. In a heartwarming scene viewed across the area, I watched the men on my block transform themselves into human snowplows and snow blowers. Not only did they synchronize their shovels and form lines to clear our sidewalks, they also cut a small pathway down the middle of the road leading to a "secondary street" long before the first plow showed up a full day later.

You see, these younger guys have to get to work. They don't have the luxury of "liberal leave" because no work means no pay.

Lots of hourly wage workers found themselves in the same slippery situation but without help from local authorities paid to make the trains run on time.

Which brings me to the worst in us. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, otherwise known as Metro, failed residents miserably. I'm not talking about the front-line men and women who worked around the clock to keep the system running at half-speed. No, it's management that must weather the blame.

"I'd give them a grade of D or D-minus," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, who was on a public tirade about the transit system's abysmal performance this past week.

And who could blame him or the countless other callers and complainers who wonder aloud why Metro wasn't there for them when they needed Metro most?

Metro's motto used to be "clean, safe and reliable" service. What happened to reliable this week? Tuesday, the trains were running only in underground stations at one-hour intervals. Wednesday, it was 12 to 15 minute intervals, if you could get on one. Yesterday, they were running eight to 10 minutes apart if you didn't ride them during peak rush hours.

Count them. One, two, three full days after the last snowflake fell, Metro officials were asking commuters NOT to ride the train from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. "when congestion is at peak." Don't expect much better, they sweetly warn, until NEXT week.

They've got to be kidding, given the gridlock that gripped brave drivers, who were able to dig themselves out only to crawl across half-plowed roads to reach their bread-and-butter destinations. Some commuters arrived just in time to turn back around and start all over again.

One woman, speaking on NewsChannel 8, told the tale of her six-hour round-trip commute by Metro rail and bus. She waited on a Maryland platform while five packed trains passed her by, rode in a packed car to her destination, and then had to get the security officers on her job to come pick her up because a Metrobus never showed up in Virginia.

"One would hope that when the roads are clogged, we'd have a transit system that worked," Mr. Anderson said. "Why is it taking Metro longer to get operable and running than the roads?" Mr. Anderson said if he were Richard White, Metro's general manager, he'd be "tearing my hair out and quietly convening an inquiry." Not a bad idea.

Even a former Metro employee was "disappointed" by the subway system's poor performance, calling it "inexcusable." "They spent millions of bucks so the system could run just when it was needed most," said the former employee.

Indeed, millions have been spent to keep the system running, especially in times when ground transportation comes to a standstill, and for snowstorms. Back in the 1990s, when there were record-breaking storms, money was spent for the express purpose of purchasing heating equipment.

"Who knew … it wouldn't work if we got more than an inch of snow?" Mr. Anderson asked.

In their defense, D.C. Council member David Catania, also a member of the WMATA board, which met yesterday, said, "I'm not going to be one of those to jump on the bandwagon to bash Metro." Mr. Catania blamed "equipment failure issues." And he said "people want a perfect system," but he doubts if they are willing to pay a $5 fare to pay for equipment that will be used only when there's a big snowstorm every nine years.

WMATA spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said the transit system "naturally expected complaints" because people have come to have high expectations of WMATA, which Mr. Catania said is "arguably they best system in the country" with the lowest fares.

Ms. Johnson explained that many of the trains were left outside the underground tunnels during the snowstorm because they could not run the system and garage the trains at the same time. Once they were dug out, the obviously fragile electronic equipment had to be dried out before it could be returned to service, which could take days. Why they couldn't be sent underground when the system wasn't running was not addressed.

On WMATA's Web site, James T. Gallagher, deputy general manager for operations, says: "The personnel and equipment is geared for 2, 4 or 6 inches of snow, not a foot or a foot and a half of snow we have every seven to nine years." Sorry, those tired tracks don't carry enough water, or people either.

Another item of note on WMATA's Web site is an announcement about the nine upcoming public hearings Feb. 24 through March 13 relating to its fiscal 2004 budget.

Not surprising, transit officials are seeking a fare increase to generate $24 million in additional revenue.

Talk about a hard sell. It will be difficult for Washington's winter-weary commuters to support larger fares after this fiasco.

When, oh when, will commuters, faced with the third-worst congestion in the nation, finally get a reliable coordinated regional transportation plan? If this is the best that officials can do when Mother Nature hits us hard, I shudder to think what will happen should we suffer another terrorist attack. Now, no one expects smooth sailing after a rare storm that's dumped nearly 2 feet snow in some places.

Again, everyone is thankful for the tired workers and volunteers who are doing their best to dig us out. But there's a limit to our leniency. And Metro crossed that line.


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