Our View: When Metro’s a no-go

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Alexandria’s residents and businesses are being hit by a devastating duo of shutdowns this year. As the partial federal government closure hits the month mark – with no end in sight – many families, restaurants and local businesses are hurting.

Damage from the shutdown will continue to reverberate long after the government fully reopens. While workers will likely receive full back pay, government contractors probably won’t, and restaurants and shops are not going to recoup the dollars that are not being spent this winter.

Unfortunately, the looming three-month Metro shutdown this summer is likely to be far more damaging to Alexandria’s economy. We fear that this total closure of Alexandria’s Metro stations, following so closely on the heels of the government shutdown, may be too much for some local businesses to handle.

When in the midst of a difficult situation, it’s instructive to look both back and forward.

While counterproductive retrospection leads to finger pointing and the blame game, historical analysis can help prevent future problems.

What do we learn from examining the history of Metro, particularly in Alexandria?

We see a system that has been poorly maintained by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. We see safety issues so severe that they cost city resident Carol Glover her life back in 2015. Track shutdowns to address those safety issues have been tremendously inconvenient. Now all of our city’s Metro stations are going to be closed at once this summer for station repairs.

While WMATA richly deserves blame for all of this, it would be more instructive for the city to maximize its leverage to prevent future repeats. Here are questions we think Alexandria’s leaders should be asking about WMATA:

• How carefully is WMATA’s budget audited? Is it an outside, line-item audit? If not, can we demand one? Do we trust that the millions of dollars Alexandria pours into WMATA, for operating expenses and construction projects, are actually being spent as intended?

• Are there circumstances under which we can withhold our funding if we believe past contributions have been mismanaged? What are our legal options?

• What leverage do we have to change WMATA’s management if we believe we are not getting good value for our contributions?

• Why did we not have more say in how these station repairs are going to take place this summer? While it’s clear that working around the clock is the most time – and cost -effective way to repair the stations, why couldn’t they have been fixed one at a time rather than all at once?

Looking forward, since we appear to be stuck with this three-month shutdown of all city Metro stations, it’s imperative to minimize the negative effects. We think Mayor Justin Wilson and city council members were right to strongly question WMATA’s presentation at Tuesday night’s council legislative meeting.

Wilson was right to posit that it’s “wildly optimistic” to project, as WMATA did, that 35 percent of current riders would avoid commuting or use non-bus transportation alternatives like walking and biking during these three months. We also agree with his contention that greater use of the Virginia Railway Express is the best way to get regular Metro riders to and from D.C. this summer.

WMATA’s presentation was also too focused on commuters, while giving short shrift to the shutdown’s impact on tourism in Alexandria. It’s naïve to think the shutdown will have little to no negative bearing on the city’s tourism industry this summer.

We’d like to see concrete projections on how big a tourist drop we can expect, so businesses can plan accordingly. A noticeable decrease in tourist visits to Alexandria would harm not only businesses, but would also impact the city’s tax revenues.

It seems there’s a lot to learn, and do, between now and May. We’d best get with it, because in four months, ready or not, Metro trains won’t be coming here.

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