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Metro misses goal for escalator, elevator repairs

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Local,Kytja Weir,Metro and Traffic

Metro has fallen behind on its goal to repair elevators and escalators this year because of what it says is a shortage of technicians, a subcontractor that went bankrupt and other problems.

The transit agency has been touting its aggressive "Metro Forward" campaign to fix the aging system, including major shutdowns of rail lines on stations nearly every weekend and a $151 million contract to overhaul escalators. Metro had planned to overhaul 25 elevators and 54 escalators this fiscal year, which ends June 30. But Metro has delayed eight of the elevator repairs and nine of the escalator fixes.

"The contractor handling these elevators ran into a problem in the fall when their subcontractor responsible for providing platforms, cabs and fixtures went bankrupt," said Metro spokesman Philip Stewart. The firm had to find a new vendor and then basically start over.

Escalator repairs fell off schedule for other reasons, including changes to meet codes, "unforeseen site conditions" and contractor delays, he said.Metro disputes that wrong parts were ordered, as one board member suggested. The misunderstanding was due to "erroneous information that was provided to the board in memo form," Stewart said.

The panels on elevators are not consistent, so riders have to take a good look to see which button to push. Even then, the emergency button and the button to call the elevator sometimes look similar.

Need an elevator -- or a paramedic?
Even when Metro replaces its old elevator and escalator equipment with new parts, the agency is having trouble making its signs clear to riders.
The panels on elevators are not consistent, so riders have to take a good look to see which button to push. Even then, the emergency button and the button to call the elevator sometimes look similar.
Agency employees -- or perhaps well-meaning riders -- have added arrows and paper signs to help. At Metro Center, an elevator's down button has white arrows handpainted around it.
Even so, Metro workers invariably end up answering false calls on the emergency buttons when riders mistakenly push those instead of the call buttons.
In 2011, Metro tried to get rid of the plethora of handwritten signs in stations by creating sets of printed signs for the most common problems, such as "Escalator out of service." Now it is trying to do the same with elevators.
"The elevator call buttons have not changed aesthetically, but in a handful of stations, the location of the buttons changed as a result of the rehabilitation," said Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye. "We are in the process of affixing permanent labels to identify these buttons and reduce any confusion."

Metro said it plans to take on the work in fiscal 2014. Metro considers its repair campaign a success despite the missed goal, noting that 78 percent of the planned repairs will be completed on time.The agency also said that 92 percent of its escalators were in service in March, more than it has had since August 2008. "All of this work is clearly paying off," Stewart said. "We have seen five consecutive months of above-target performance -- meaning nine out of every 10 escalators is in service."

For riders, the delay is good news and bad.

It means fewer escalators and elevators have been out of service for scheduled work, meaning riders encounter fewer frozen escalators. On Tuesday afternoon, for example, only 5 percent of the system's escalators and elevators were out of order. Of those, 19 escalators were shut down for scheduled maintenance and 13 due to breakdowns, plus nine elevators for planned repairs and three unexpected outages. The agency has 588 escalators and 239 elevators in its stations, not including those in parking facilities.

But for a rider, especially one with a disability, it doesn't matter that only 5 percent are out of service if one of them is in his path. Just one outage can complicate a trip, leaving riders navigating a maze to get out or a bottleneck of crowds hiking up the same narrow set of steps.

And the delay in work could mean long-term hassles for riders as problems get pushed down the road.

The aging Metro system is still using many of its original escalators and elevators. But with a life span of about 30 years on a system that is 37 years old, many of the pieces are due for major work if not replacement. The planned pace was intended to overhaul 10 percent of the elevators and 9 percent of the system's escalators this year. At that rate, it would have taken about 10 years to get all of them overhauled.

But now that rate has been slowed. And that leaves more time for equipment to break down, causing more unplanned outages -- and hiking -- for riders.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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