After a summer of upheaval, travel in Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria returned to normal on Sept. 9 when Metro reopened six Metro Blue and Yellow line stations south of Reagan National Airport.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority shut down stations at Braddock Road, King Street and Old Town, Eisenhower Avenue, Huntington, Van Dorn Street, and Franconia-Springfield on May 25 in order to rebuild the platforms at those stations.
The three-month-long closure represented the transit system’s longest-ever continuous shutdown and the first phase of its platform improvement project, which is expected to last three years total with outdoor platforms at 20 stations reconstructed to address safety and accessibility concerns as well as structural deficiencies.
Regular rail service returned to the six stations involved in the project’s first phase on schedule at 5:00 a.m. on Monday.
“We are incredibly thankful to our customers, residents, and nearby businesses for their understanding this summer as we reconstructed six station platforms…in the largest and most complex capital project since Metro’s original construction,” WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said. “When the project is complete this fall, customers will benefit not only from safer infrastructure, but a more modern and convenient station experience.”
Changes at the affected stations include the installation of slip-resistant tiles on the platforms and in mezzanine areas, stainless-steel platform shelters with charging outlets, additional passenger information display screens, LED lighting, and new speakers to deliver public announcements and emergency notifications.
While heavy construction activities are now complete, additional work will continue for several more weeks at some stations, according to WMATA.
The ongoing work will not affect train service, but passengers will face some inconveniences, including single-tracking at the Huntington and Franconia-Springfield stations, continued closure of the walkway between Huntington’s north and middle garages, unavailable fare machines at Huntington’s north entrance, and limited bicycle rack availability at Braddock Road.
Kiss and Ride lots currently being used as construction staging areas will stay closed for the time being, and bus stops have been relocated to temporary locations into the fall at all of the stations in the project except for Franconia-Springfield.
With the six Blue and Yellow line stations now open again, it remains to be seen how the region will recover from the impact that Metro’s shutdown had on traffic and commutes for drivers and transit users alike.
According to WTOP, data provided to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission earlier this month showed a 10 percent drop in Metrorail ridership from Virginia across June and July, though Wiedefeld predicted in August that those riders will return with the improved service and facilities at the impacted stations.
Some Metro riders evidently turned to their cars as an alternative.
Preliminary data collected by the City of Alexandria found that average vehicle travel times in the city increased by 4 percent over the summer from the preceding spring, according to Craig Fifer, the city’s director of communications.
The Virginia Department of Transportation did not have available traffic data yet, but portable cameras installed at the Franconia-Springfield and Huntington stations to help monitor traffic during the summer “did not observe major traffic issues at those locations,” VDOT Northern Virginia communications manager Jennifer McCord says, adding that traffic tends to be lighter on local roads in the summer.
Other commuters took advantage of the enhanced transit services offered by Metro, Fairfax County, and Alexandria.
Free shuttle buses at each of the stations during the platform improvement project provided more than 2 million rides, making them Metro’s most heavily used single bus line by a wide margin over the project’s three months, according to WMATA spokesperson Ian Jannetta.
The five Metrobus routes that supplemented their regular service during the project saw their ridership increase by nearly 2,000 boardings a day.
Metrorail ridership numbers for the first few days after service resumed at the six stations was not available by the time the Fairfax County Times went to print.
In an effort to encourage riders to use the Metro shuttles, carpooling, and other alternatives to driving alone, the WMATA board of directors voted in April to waive parking fees at the King Street, Eisenhower, and Braddock Road stations for the duration of the project.
WMATA projected that the suspension of parking fees would save more than $500 for riders over the course of the shutdown and cost the transit agency $2 million that it planned to cover with money from a capital budget fund dedicated to compensating for revenue losses related to major track work.
With the return of rail service at its Virginia Blue and Yellow line stations, Metro has reinstated regular parking fees at the Eisenhower, King Street, and Braddock stations, and the free shuttle bus service has ended, though some shuttles remain on standby in case of a disruption.
Metrobus has also discontinued its supplemental bus trips and enhanced rush-hour bus service.
Fairfax County offered supplemental Fairfax Connector express service from the Saratoga Park and Ride in Springfield during the shutdown, but service on the affected Routes 393 and 394 returned to their regular schedules on Sept. 9.
The Fairfax Connector apparently did not experience any significant challenges as a result of Metro’s station shutdowns, as the Fairfax County Department of Transportation “did not hear about any complaints on social media over the course of the summer,” according to FCDOT head of communications Robin Geiger.
To encourage commuters to return to Metrorail or try it for the first time, Fairfax County is offering free $50 SmarTrip cards that can be used for Metro bus and train services or at Metro parking garages to residents who take a survey on the transportation department’s website.
In addition to opening Landmark Mall’s parking lot to commuters with permits for a space, the City of Alexandria tried to entice riders to its Driving Alexandria Safely Home bus system with a $1 promotional fare for people who pay using the transit system’s mobile app.
The Potomac Riverboat Company averaged more than 800 daily riders on its water taxi service this summer and will continue offering rides between Old Town Alexandria and The Wharf in Washington, D.C., according to the City of Alexandria, which has extended the DASH discount through Dec. 31.
To celebrate the end of the Metro shutdown, some Alexandria businesses and attractions are making special offers to customers who display a Metro SmarTrip card through Sept. 15.
Along with a free Key to the City pass that can be used until the end of the year to get access to museums and historic sites, the special offers include free Discover Alexandria tours, discounts from Acme Mid-Century + Modern furniture and Get Fit studio, extended happy hours and other deals from local restaurants, a free co-working day at Building Momentum’s The Garden, and a hotel package from The Alexandrian.
“The special offers for customers showing SmarTrip cards were organized by Visit Alexandria to thank customers for their patience during Metro’s project and to promote local businesses and other attractions,” Fifer said.
Patience will continue to be a necessary virtue for Fairfax County commuters in 2020 when Metro closes the Vienna, Dunn Loring, and West and East Falls Church stations as part of the second phase of its platform improvement project.
WMATA says it will publish further details about next year’s construction work and its efforts to work with regional jurisdictions and other transportation agencies “to develop traffic mitigations and customer travel alternatives” later this year.