While Metro fares are escalating, Metro riders are also going up -- steep flights of stairs quaintly called “escalators” that, every so often, may actually move.
It’s a pleasant and rare surprise to make a simple Metrorail trip anywhere in D.C. without running into at least one set of metal yellow gates at the foot of a ripped-up escalator that looks like a dentist’s nightmare. These gates often have a sign posted on them with a return-to-service date at least two weeks in the past.
Four years ago, WMATA said it cost about $51,000 per year to keep each escalator in service. It considered replacing 23 short escalators with permanent stairs -- only in stations where other escalators and elevators would still operate -- in order to save about $1.2 million per year. The idea never went anywhere.
So Metro goes on paying $29.5 million per year on escalator maintenance, according to its fiscal 2009 budget. And as of this morning 64 Metro escalators -- about one out of every nine in the system -- are out of service. (But 21 of them will be back in service by Sunday. No really, they will!)
This is more than just a minor nuisance -- it’s a safety issue. Last month, one rider told Unsuck D.C. Metro that, during his slow 10-minute ascent of a broken escalator at Union Station, he observed several handicapped riders waiting for an elevator that seemed to be broken. He said he reported the problem to a Metro “worker” who was having a conversation with a colleague. The rider said the exchange went like this:
The woman responded with "It's juuuuust slow." Her attitude was one of "How DARE you disturb my conversation and tell me something is wrong?"
Annoyed, but unable to stop to talk and argue, I walked away, but I again politely said, "there is something wrong with your elevator, Ma'am. People have been waiting for 10 minutes. That's not slow, that's malfunctioning."
She shouted back "NO, ITS JUST SLOW!" Then, the elevator doors slowly closed, but the elevator didn't move toward the stranded people below. It just sat there. Not working.
On that weekday afternoon, in rush hour at one of the system’s busiest stations, neither the escalator nor the elevator was, well, escalating or elevating, apparently. Patrons were caught in a slow-moving crush up the steps, or trapped altogether. And Metro didn't seem to be doing a thing about it.
WMATA has oddly boasted that “if you were to stack all of our elevators and escalators, it would reach from the top of Mt. McKinley, the highest point in North America, to 2,400 feet below sea level.” Is mountain climbing really the metaphor they want to bring to mind?
In any case, if you’re riding Metro today, wear your hiking shoes -- there’s a one in nine chance you’ll be doing some climbing.