Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro celebrates new escalators today but it's a tough sell

November 30, 2011 - 11:07 AM
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Huffing it toward functionality. (Photo: flickr/brownpau)

Today Metro is publicly letting its riders know that all these weekend delays haven't been for nothing. New escalators are here! Two separate ceremonies marked the occasion this morning, at both Foggy Bottom and Union Station.

"On Wednesday, Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles will mark the completion of escalator rehabilitation work at Union Station and escalator replacement work at Foggy Bottom," WMATA announced earlier this week. "The three new and seven fully refurbished escalators at two of Metro's busiest stations are the first major milestones in Metro’s $150 million effort to improve escalator reliability."

Sounds wonderful, right? Escalators have, perhaps, proved the sorest point for Metro riders who constantly find themselves treading up and down broken or out-of-service stairways. Metro began replacing the Foggy Bottom escalators this summer in a $6 million project that marks the first new escalator the WMATA system has seen in 15 years. Metro is calling these repairs "milestones" in today's press event, and sure, why not. The transit agency should tout its work with every fiber of its being.

But not everyone buys the hype. Here's the most notorious Metro escalator critics in recent memory:

Thomas Friedman: The New York Times columnist and author turned our busted Metro escalators into one of his infamous metaphors, for Christ's sake, in his latest book. They even make the opening chapter. When Friedman stares at his Bethesda station, he sees a symbol of American dysfunction. What he doesn't understand, most of all, seems to be the slow pace of repairs.

Unsuck D.C. Metro: The anonymous Metro blogger and critic has long pointed to the problem with escalators and today he mocked the idea of the WMATA ceremony as an "escalator party." He offers a biting satire of what he jokes are from a "leaked copy of GM Richard Sarles' prepared remarks":

One score and 15 years ago our fathers brought forth on this city, a new subway, conceived in escalators, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equally unable to climb stairs.

Now we are engaged in a great war, testing whether that subway, or any subway so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a near final resting place for those who here gave their thighs that that subway might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Harper's Magazine: Yes, even old Harper's took a jab at Metro escalators recently. In his December Easy Chair piece titled "More Government, Please!", Thomas Frank talks about how Washington could put its citizens back to work. Frank refers to "a number of labor-intensive projects that a hard-driving official ... could get people started on in a matter of weeks." Among his suggestions:

[A politician] could have people disassemble derelict McMansions by hand while salvaging the sinks, toilets, and granite counter-tops. He could pay out-of-work journalists to start covering state and municipal governments again. He could build out high-speed Internet to every tiny hamlet on the Great Plains. He could send thousands of unemployed construction workers to perform the deferred maintenance on every bedraggled public-school building in the nation. And when they're done with that, they could descend on the nation's capital and fix every broken escalator in the Metro system.

That's our D.C. Metro right there. Frank's suggestion, of course, doesn't take into account the training to repair escalators or the union obstacles it would likely face.

The Metro riders on Twitter: When word broke of today's WMATA ceremonies, the Twitter crowd immediately began buzzing with doubt and mockery ... not unusual for the riders who know and use the #WMATA hashtag. Here's a sampling from the past 24 hours, as riders react to news of both the Metro celebration as well as the news that certain Dupont Circle station escalators will be closed for up to 10 months:

There's a ribbon cutting for the new Foggy Bottom escalators today. Let's hope no one's taking Metro to get there.
Nov 30 via Tweet ButtonFavoriteRetweetReply

In "Wanting Credit for What You're SUPPOSED to Do" news, Metro celebrates fixing an escalator.
Nov 29 via HootSuiteFavoriteRetweetReply

Must be the two that are actually working. RT @wmata Metro to mark escalator milestones at Union Station & Foggy Bottom
Nov 29 via TweetDeckFavoriteRetweetReply

Nov 30 via TweetDeckFavoriteRetweetReply

Metro celebrates tackle after 99yd run. RT @wmata: Metro to mark escalator milestones at Union Station & Foggy Bottom
Nov 29 via UberSocial for BlackBerryFavoriteRetweetReply

Giving in to apathy. Communications plan you win. Maybe I should go into a field that requires less work. Like metro escalator repairs.
Nov 30 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

Hear that, WMATA? There's your rider perception out there. In a phrase: viciously unimpressed.

Let's hope you planned for one hell of a press conference and plenty more to come. The last big press event was the debut of Farragut Crossing on Oct. 28, which featured fluffy mascots dancing along in a conga line. Not a bad start. To overcome such a calcifying impression of disrepair and sluggishness won't be easy, and Metro will not only have to aggressively pursue its repair plans but also continue to communicate its significance to the riders. Perhaps all will seem different five years from now though. Let's hope.

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