Washington commuters turn to bikes, buses amid subway shutdown

World Wednesday 16/March/2016 19:33 PM
By: Times News Service
Washington commuters turn to bikes, buses amid subway shutdown

Washington: Commuters in Washington, DC, packed the roads in cars and on bicycles and crowded buses to cope with a last-minute shutdown of the second-busiest US subway system for emergency safety checks.
The estimated 700,000 people who ride the Washington-area Metro system every weekday, including about a third of the region's federal workforce, were scrambling to get to work and around town on Wednesday while 600 underground cables are inspected.
Traffic was heavier than usual on many major commuter arteries leading in from the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, with roads including the George Washington Parkway clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic in the predawn hours. More cyclists were visible on roadways than is typical for the late winter.
Jeanette Norton, who works at a Washington non-profit organization and lives in the inner suburb of Arlington, Virginia, turned to ride service Uber and left more than two hours early "to avoid the craziness." Her normal commute by Metro is about 20 minutes.
"The traffic wasn't too bad, and there was no surge pricing," Norton said.
More than 60 people were lined up waiting for taxis at Union Station, the Beaux Arts long-distance passenger rail hub a few blocks north of the Capitol.
Ted Cox, a 62-year-old immigration attorney from New York, was worried about making a court appointment in Arlington, Virginia, and then getting back to the station in time for his Amtrak train at noon EDT (1600 GMT).
"What kind of country are we in, that the nation's capital can't run a metro system?" he said. "It's sort of on a par with the infrastructure in the rest of the country. Hopefully this will get the attention of legislators to deal with infrastructure in general."
US Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat whose district includes Washington commuter suburbs, called the shutdown "a gut punch to commuters".
Some commuters took to Twitter to express frustration at delays and crowding on buses, making #MetroShutdown the top-trending hashtag in the United States on Wednesday morning. One user joked that the city should flood the subway tunnels to the level of the platforms and rely on Venetian gondolas rather than trains.
With cloudy skies and temperatures approaching 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6°C), the morning weather was conducive to cycling and walking, but forecasters warned of possible afternoon thunderstorms that could make for a messier trip home.
Transit officials in the US capital announced the unprecedented closure on Tuesday afternoon after a cable fire this week caused delays. The Metro, which serves Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, shut down at midnight, its normal closing hour, and is scheduled to reopen at 5am on Thursday.
The closure of the 119-mile (230-km) subway system, which has been plagued by equipment breakdowns and fires, will allow safety officials to inspect the cables for worn-out casings, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told a news conference.
The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal workforce, said government offices would remain open, but employees could take unscheduled leave or work from home. Congress and most schools will be open.
Local news radio station WTOP compared the situation to "a snow day without the snow."
Some Metro riders said they welcomed the shutdown as an indication the system was getting serious about safety even though it would snarl their commutes.
"Washington Metro has become a problem child ... of US metro systems," said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "What was once the pride (of the US system) seems to be allowed to deteriorate to an embarrassing extent."
Buses were running normally on Wednesday and parking was free in Metro-owned lots and garages.
Uber said it would cap surge pricing in the Washington area at 3.9 times base fares during the shutdown. It said it was expanding uberPool coverage across Washington, Maryland and the Virginia metro area.
San Francisco-based rival Lyft said it was expecting high demand and offered new customers $20 off their first ride.
Rohan Gabay, a 54-year-old network engineer said he and his wife left their home in Clinton, Maryland, about 20 miles (32 km) outside Washington, an hour earlier than usual in anticipation of heavy traffic.
"My wife was a little anxious," he said. "I didn't really like how it was handled. My wife's company gave them an hour more to get in, but my company said I had to be in the office on time."