D.C.'s Metro is "at a low point," its general manager said Thursday, in a brutally honest assessment of the system.
While riders might have been saying that for some time -- ridership on the system now is down 30,000 trips each day from its peak -- it's something else to hear it from the system's leaders themselves. But that's what happened Thursday, after Metro faced facts at a tough and honest board meeting.
"We are at a low point, and I think we are trying to trend in the right direction," said Jack Requa, Metro's interim general manager.
Managers drew a direct relationship between the system's reliability struggles and falling ridership.
"We have obviously had our troubles in providing reliable service, and I think people think about that when they know they have to go from point A to point B and they need to be there at a specific time," Requa said.
Said Mort Downey, chairman of Metro's board, when asked if Metro customers are getting what they pay for: "No."
"They are getting quality a lot of the time, but they are not getting the reliability that they count on." Downey said.
It's a tough time for the system. Besides the drop in ridership, which is costing the agency millions in fares each month, safety has become enough of a concern that the National Transportation Safety Board has issued urged federal officials to place Metrorail under the watch of the Federal Railroad Administration.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx rejected that proposal Thursday, The Washington Post reported.
A woman died in a smoke-filled Metro tunnel in January, and subsequent investigations found Metro's ventilation fans had pulled smoke in, instead of out, and rescuers couldn't communicate from the surface to the trapped people below ground. "I can think of nothing worse than being smoked to death, underground, in a subway," D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said at a congressional hearing on the death.
Meanwhile, the system still is looking for a permanent general manager. Sources told News4 transportation reporter Adam Tuss and reporter Mark Segraves in September that the search was down to five finalists.
Metro officials say they're acknowledging their challenges and doing everything they can to avoid a rate hike, knowing that might send other riders away. Metro fares have climbed 51 percent in 10 years.
One example: Metro may lean more heavily on advertising as a source of revenue than it ever has.
And Metro officials shared a little good news on the continuing repairs needed at Stadium-Armory, where damage from a transformer fire has led to slowdowns on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines.
New equipment may speed up repairs, but even if that equipment works properly, full restoration still is expected to take three months.
Repairs are key to restoring faith in the system for riders like Elsie Guerraro.
"On my first day of work, on June first, the A.C. was off and there was a delay, and it smelled like a gym locker." Guerraro said.
She said she's found a solution: She's been walking to work more.