Parking will be free at the Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, and Van Dorn Street Metro stations this summer when the public transit system experiences its longest-ever shutdown.
In a concession to commuters, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board of Directors voted on Apr. 25 to waive parking fees at three of the six Blue and Yellow Line stations that will close from May 25 to Sept. 8 as part of a scheduled platform improvement project.
The Eisenhower Avenue, King Street-Old Town, and Braddock Road stations will also be affected by the shutdown, but they do not have any Metro parking facilities.
By waiving parking fees at Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, and Van Dorn, WMATA hopes to encourage travelers to carpool or use other public transportation options, such as free express shuttle buses that Metro will run throughout the shutdown, instead of driving solo.
“This is another way of encouraging customers to stick with us during the essential construction work taking place this summer,” Metro general manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld said. “In addition to free parking at these stations, customers can take advantage of express shuttle service to the Pentagon and conveniently transfer to the rail system. The express shuttles…have been very popular with customers in the past.”
Parking at the Franconia-Springfield, Huntington, and Van Dorn stations normally costs $4.95 on Mondays through Fridays for Metro riders and $8.95 for non-riders. The Franconia and Van Dorn stations also have metered spaces that charge $1 for every hour.
According to Metro, the waived parking fees will save more than $500 for regular riders during the three-month shutdown.
Allowing free parking at the three stations will cost WMATA a projected $2 million, according to WTOP, which says the agency plans to cover the loss with money from a capital budget fund dedicated to covering revenue losses connected to major track work.
First announced on May 7, 2018, Metro’s prolonged, six-station shutdown is the first phase of its platform improvement project, a three-year effort to reconstruct outdoor platforms at 20 stations to address structural deficiencies as well as safety and accessibility concerns.
The other 13 stations, including the Orange Line between Vienna and West Falls Church, will undergo platform reconstructions throughout 2020 and 2021.
Metro previously shut down five Orange Line stations in Washington, D.C., and Maryland for 31 days in 2017 for track work. That came as part of WMATA’s SafeTrack program, which lasted two years and was designed to accelerate maintenance and safety projects.
Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay, whose district encompasses the Franconia and Huntington stations, thanked the WMATA Board for waiving parking fees after he sent a letter supporting the proposal the previous week.
Acknowledging the anticipated impact that the upcoming shutdown will have on many county residents, the supervisor says Fairfax County officials and transit service providers have been meeting regularly and coordinating with WMATA to prepare.
“I have been working closing [sic] with WMATA officials to ensure this process goes as smooth as possible and that all Metro riders are taken into consideration,” McKay said in a statement. “…In the weeks ahead, my office and I will be working to spread the word of all options available to Metro riders so that this project will have minimal effects on our community.”
Metro staff estimated that the closure of six stations this summer will affect 17,000 weekday rush-hour customers, or 8 percent of the service’s peak weekday ridership, according to a report presented to the WMATA Board’s safety and operations committee on Dec. 13.
Those numbers were calculated before WMATA announced on Apr. 18 that the shutdown would be extended by six days from its original Labor Day endpoint after determining that additional structural modifications are needed to address a design issue at the Braddock Road station.
Federal Transit Administration researchers reported in 2018 that traffic in the Washington, D.C., region went up significantly during WMATA’s SafeTrack program in 2016 and 2017.
Major Virginia roadways going into and out of D.C. saw a roughly 2.5 percent uptick in traffic volume during that time, according to WTOP.
WMATA hopes that offering free parking will help mitigate traffic concerns by incentivizing alternative travel methods made available at the Metro stations.
In addition to established public transit networks, including Metrobus and the Fairfax Connector, and DASH buses, Metro will provide free express shuttles from the Franconia-Springfield and Huntington stations to the Pentagon as well as ones that go along Blue and Yellow Lines.
The shuttles will run every five minutes during rush hour and every 10 minutes in the middle of the day, aside from the Blue Line shuttle that will operate every 10 to 12 minutes during midday, according to Fairfax County.
Officials have also suggested the Virginia Rail Express and ridesharing as options available to commuters.
The VRE can be accessed from the Franconia-Springfield Metro station and has stations at Lorton, Burke Centre, Rolling Road, and Backlick Road.
Slug lines, a form of ridesharing where single drivers pick up passengers for free in order to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes, will also be permitted at the Franconia-Springfield station, according to Fairfax County, which has a list of travel alternatives on its government website.
However, many local commuters remain skeptical that these measures will be enough to alleviate the headaches of spending an entire summer without easy Metro access.
Nicole Miller has been slugging in Springfield for six years, and she worries that the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station’s closure will prompt an influx of new sluggers to established slug line locations, straining the capacity of already crowded parking facilities.
“People are going to come to slugging because it’s free, it’s easy, and we’re here,” Miller said. “…Our problem is that slugging is so popular, we’re already overfilled with people parking. We don’t really have space for additional parking. We don’t have any, actually.”
By Miller’s estimate, the Old Keene Mill Road slug lot near the Springfield Town Center, the oldest and most popular pick-up location in the area, attracts about 1,200 to 1,300 sluggers every day but only has 700 parking spots, which are usually full by 7:30 a.m.
According to Metro, the three stations affected by the approved fee waiver have more than 8,000 parking spaces combined, with 5,069 spaces at Franconia-Springfield, 3,617 at Huntington, and 361 at Van Dorn Street.
On a typical day, the relatively small Van Dorn station lot tends to be full, but the Franconia and Huntington stations are usually only half filled, according to WTOP.
“That parking is not full even today,” Robin Geiger, head of communications for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation, said. “…That’s a lot of parking available for sluggers, ride-sharing, carpools, and people hopping on the shuttles.”
Miller says her slug-line group is working to set up a line at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station, but she worries that the expense of riding the VRE eliminates that as a viable option for many people, which might prompt more people to try slugging.
Past experience has also made her wary of relying on the free shuttles offered by WMATA.
“Last time they had a shutdown, the buses took forever,” Miller said. “Some of the drivers didn’t even know the route. The traffic is going to be a nightmare.”
Though the Metro shuttles will not provide the same capacity as their regular trains, Geiger says that they proved popular when deployed during SafeTrack. In fact, an express shuttle from the Vienna Metro station to the Pentagon gained so much traction that Fairfax Connector added the route to its service network starting Jan. 19 in response to rider requests.
For now, Geiger’s main advice to Fairfax County commuters who will be affected by the upcoming Metro shutdown is to plan and to take advantage of telework, alternative schedules, or other flexible work options if permitted by employers.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management, for instance, has stated that federal employees will be allowed to follow flexible work schedules during the shutdown.
“Our message right now especially is plan. Plan for your commute, and plan what you’re going to do,” Geiger said. “…Don’t drive your own car, because it will be congested if you’re trying to drive, so plan other options.”