Shutting Down Subway Lines Is What Grown-Up Systems Do

D.C. is despairing because the Metro might close entire lines for months at a time. That’s not poor service. It’s good care.

Metro Center station.
The entrance to the Metro Center station was closed during the morning rush hour on March 16, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Pete Marovich/Getty Images

On the face of it, everything about Washington, D.C.’s Metro shutting down entire subway lines for months at a time stinks.

It stinks for the D.C. area’s riders, whose patterns—commute or otherwise—will be disrupted for longer than they’ve ever been before. It stinks for the perennially loathed Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which will have to repair another massive dent in its reputation.

And the plan—Metro officials admitted Wednesday that the system so needs repairs that rail lines could close for up to six months—utterly stinks for the region, which will have to contend with unprecedented congestion. Metrorail opened in 1976, and it is still expanding. It conveys hundreds of thousands of people around the region daily. Its stellar availability has lured people away from their cars—however enticing a private commute may be—for four decades. How could Metro do this?

Because shutting down a Metrorail line for a month isn’t poor service. It’s excellent customer care, and it shows that the system’s management—far from letting its subway network rot, as it has in slow motion for decades—is finally taking seriously how essential WMATA is to the D.C. area. In 2015, there were 712,843 rides taken per day on Metrorail, which services a multijurisdictional region that’s one of the densest in the country. This is the kind of grown-up move that grown-up transit systems make.

And consider the alternatives: one-day system shutdowns every few weeks for the next few years, or perhaps the annihilation of weekend service for weeks at a time? Endless weekend trackwork resulting in unreasonably long headways, which riders now regard as de rigeur? Or, worse: Riders might have service, but they’ll be susceptible to fires, crashes, and derailments—which in Metro’s case have previously meant injuries and death.

There are scant details on how WMATA will handle shutting down a whole rail line. We don’t know which line, or lines, will close. We don’t know when this will happen—if it’s a one-time, one line thing, if several lines will need to be shut down repeatedly, or if only parts of lines will need to be shuttered. We don’t know exactly what kind of work needs to be done. We don’t know how the agency plans to ferry riders in lieu of Metrorail. (All of which makes WMATA’s announcement earlier this week, which was about the possibility of a shutdown, feel like a canny PR move: By introducing the worst-case scenario, it will make itself look pretty good when it finally reveals something concrete.)

Regardless of how exactly this plays out, it’s a good thing that WMATA is taking drastic measures that call attention to how much work Metrorail needs. And it’s far from rare for a major chunk of a transportation network to shut down for repairs.

The Chicago Transit Authority’s $425 million Red Line South reconstruction project rebuilt 10.2 miles of rail—and shut down that line for five months, from May to October 2013. Working exclusively on weekends would’ve taken five years, so CTA “bet that short, intense pain [would] be easier to suffer through than several years of track construction migraines.” Riders shied away from showing support, but city aldermen threw their weight behind the closure, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel praised CTA’s transparency and outreach. As of 2016, ridership is up on the Red Line, and passengers are traveling 20 minutes faster on brand-new rail. Without shutting down the southern part of the line, Chicagoans would still be waiting for tangible improvements—and the project would be running at least $75 million more.

New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is considering shutting down the L Train, between Manhattan and Brooklyn, for years, perhaps, in 2018; that will follow a partial M Line shutdown, through parts of Brooklyn and Queens, in 2017. The L train’s Canarsie tube, which flooded during Hurricane Sandy, needs three years’ worth of repairs. In the meantime, the 7 train, between Long Island City and Manhattan, is closing intermittently throughout 2016.

And it’s not just rail that gets the shutdown treatment: Los Angeles closed 10 miles of the 405 in 2011 so that it could be widened. This went swimmingly enough that the 405 was shut down again in 2011. Yes, Angelenos survived a highway shutdown—twice.

For the Red Line, the L and M trains, and the 405, a shutdown was, or will be, the only way to efficiently and thoroughly complete necessary work. As with design, you can have affordable and fast maintenance, or affordable and good maintenance, but not affordable, fast, and good maintenance. When an agency tries to reverse decades of neglect while simultaneously carrying passengers, service limps and repairs never end. WMATA’s “Metro Forward” maintenance efforts have been going on since 2011, and trains are still single-tracking, causing delays. And Metrorail’s sister system, San Francisco’s BART, is equally hobbled; last month, a BART communications officer responded to indignant tweets about service disruptions by explaining the system’s myriad ailments, hashtagging the conversation #thisisourreality. That day’s specific problems were related to an electrical issue that knocked 50 cars out of service, one by one.

It’s time for bold moves that throw muscle behind the maintenance of American infrastructure. We’ve neglected the networks that once stood proud, favoring—if we fund transit at all—shiny, ribbon-cutting-worthy new construction projects (like highways and streetcars) over the care and keeping of the beautiful systems we’ve got (yes, roads count here, too). With these proposed closures, Metro is staring down the ugliness of decline head-on. It’s a serious move that respects the gravity of the system’s troubles and the level of work required to fix them, and it’s the kind of leadership that just might start to instill the safety culture that Metro has sorely lacked.

Plus, this could have the unintended benefit of making Virginia and Maryland realize what an asset WMATA is—and fund it accordingly. The two have historically bickered over funding Metro, because the system only services portions of their states. If we love the mobility and, consequently, the liberty that public transit affords us, we need to fund it robustly so that it continues to work.

“Shutting down Metro for one workday was an inconvenience; shutting it down for months at a time will have far-reaching consequences for riders and the entire region,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s spokesman, Michael Czin, told the Washington Post. There’s no doubt that our transportation networks are critical to our day-to-day functionality, and especially in major metropolitan areas, it’s hard for us to imagine reasonable commutes without them. But funding for transportation is consistently precarious, and when an agency makes moves to keep things running smoothly, our immediate reaction is to squall in protest. Such reactions are understandable but wrong, prizing riders’ convenience over their safety.

America’s infrastructure is crumbling because of federal, state, and local choices to build the new rather than fix the old, and shutdowns that test our patience—for a weekend, for 30 days, for five months, or three years—are how we’re paying for this shortsightedness. The true needs of maintaining and funding infrastructure will never be easy, and they aren’t sexy. But a well-functioning transit system is. In our country, shutdowns appear to be the sole route that gets us that result.