Metro was just given $15.5 billion over a decade to fix the system. But three years later, it still can’t repair the chillers.
May 5, 2018
By The 2030 Group
By: Faiz Siddiqui
As Metro embarks on an ambitious plan to pump $15.5 billion into the rail system over 10 years, the wall of hot air that will soon greet riders at two downtown stations offers a dose of reality: money will not solve all the agency’s problems.
Case in point: last summer, after two failed attempts to repair the chiller system that pumps cool air into the Farragut North and Dupont stations, Metro said it had a temporary fix until more extensive work could be done. But three years after the problem arose, the chillers still aren’t repaired.
Metro stations are not air-conditioned and never have been. However, mechanical air-cooling systems — including components called chiller plants — use water, pumps and fans to lower the temperature of outside air and push it across station platforms, making them about six degrees cooler.
But in a recent years, 500-foot pipes below the street have sprung leaks, preventing the water from reaching a cooling tower 13 stories up at 1101 Connecticut Ave. NW. That prevents the chilled air from being returned to the stations, something the estimated 39,000 daily riders who pass through Dupont and Farragut North know well.
Metro is aware of what needs to be done. Crews must dig up part of Connecticut Avenue and replace the corroded pipes.
So what’s taking so long?
Rather than tear into the busy street when the problem was found in 2015, Metro tried several cheaper and less intrusive repairs. Workers first tried to patch the holes and reline the pipes, including using a sealant for the leaks.
When those tactics didn’t work, Metro last summer tried something different: a mobile cooling tower that pumped chilled air into the stations. That temporary solution is now the subject of a dispute between Metro and local businesses who say the mobile tower is noisy, unsightly and disruptive.
To make matters worse, Metro in November abruptly canceled the procurement for a long-term repair amid concerns about the scope of the work that needed to be done. Metro declined to detail the contract issue, but a permanent solution has been delayed again. The dumpster-like mobile cooling contraption is returning — much to the dismay of business owners.
“I have sympathy for the riders,” said Ginger Park, co-owner of the confectionery boutique Chocolate Chocolate, which lost 12 to 15 percent of its business last summer when the temporary chiller obscured its storefront. “I don’t have sympathy for Metro because they are not thinking about a permanent fix.”
Businesses said they were willing to put up with the rumbling noise and obstruction to their storefronts as long as there was an end in sight.They didn’t expect the mobile cooling tower to be back this summer.
The Golden Triangle Business Improvement District also has raised objections with the transit agency.
“I’m not defending Metro. I think it’s outrageous that it’s not done,” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said. “They need to get this done, and it would be inexcusable if we end up out there [next summer] and we don’t have this taken care of.”
Metro is working with the District Department of Transportation to secure permits to place the temporary cooling tower in a travel lane of Connecticut or in another, less disruptive location.
The bad news for Metro riders is that the temporary tower isn’t expected to be in place before the official “warm” season begins May 15, Metro said. DDOT spokeswoman Michelle B. Phipps-Evans said Metro has proposed several locations for the cooling tower and the matter is under review. A permit would be awarded after the plans and “any potential impacts at each location” are evaluated, she said.
Metro said the permanent repair is expected to cost more than $5 million. Given the project delays, the long-term solution is expected to be advanced “on an expedited timetable,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
“It should come as no surprise that digging up Connecticut Avenue was a last-resort option — something we would consider only after other repair options were exhausted,” Stessel said. “This project extends beyond Metro property and requires coordination with DDOT, the Business Improvement District, among others. . . . Unfortunately, none of these less intrusive options were successful, and the decision was made last year to install new pipes.”
Leona Agouridis, executive director of the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, said the frustration over the temporary cooling tower underscores the need for a permanent fix — and soon — even if it will be disruptive.
“We’ve all been through it with the (SafeTrack) surges last year,” she said. “I think people do get that bigger picture, and when you’re looking at permanent improvement you’re willing to accept a little inconvenience to get there. People, well, they’ll grit their teeth but they will understand the need to do it just like everything else in life.”
The owners of Chocolate Chocolate, who first spoke to NBC4, struck a similar but harsher tone in a March 1 letter objecting to the return of the temporary cooling tower.
“The only solution is to fix the aging pipes, which Metro keeps delaying,” they wrote. “We should NOT have to bear the brunt of Metro’s failure to resolve their air conditioning issues.”
The owner of another business on the block, Danielle Poux of Danielle’s Desserts, worries that the tower will disrupt the flow of office workers popping into her shop for cake, pie, cupcakes and truffles. The shop opened in November, so it did not lose any business because of last summer’s temporary chiller, which was turned off in October.
“People come in here because they happen to see us from across the street or they happen to be walking by,” she said. “So the chiller . . . would obstruct the view of the shop from across the street [and] it would provide a distraction for people walking by.”
At a tour of the chiller plant last spring, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld acknowledged that the cracks in the pipes hinted at deeper problems lurking within the transit system.
“It does reflect, basically, the larger issue. This is a 40-year-old [system],” he said. “This stuff all needs to be constantly maintained and replaced at times. . . . This is just the air-conditioning portion.”
Stessel said the chiller layout poses a “unique challenge” for Metro.
“The cooling tower and chiller plant are located some distance from the Metro stations, requiring plumbing that runs under the travel lanes of Connecticut Avenue,” he said. “But, as Paul noted, we are talking about a system that is now over 40 years old, with all of its components aging at the same rate. That requires a level of ongoing capital investment that, thanks to new dedicated funding, we will finally be able to address in a strategic, programmatic way.”
But the agency has provided contradictory answers on the source of the delays. Referring to an apparent repair plan for the cooling issues in 2015, Paul Kram, then Metro’s acting chief of plant maintenance, said, “It obviously has to be funded first.” But Stessel said this week that money “was not a factor” in the delays, despite indicating that the new dedicated funding will allow Metro to strategically address its infrastructure woes.
To many, the long-running saga to fix the chiller system is evidence of Metro’s systemic inability to accomplish large-scale projects. It also leads to questions of why the agency should be trusted with billions in new funding.
Evans said he has confidence in the management team led by Wiedefeld, who took over as general manager in late 2015.
“I have confidence in Paul Wiedefeld, my general manager,” Evans said. “He assured me it will get done. We will not be sitting here next summer with the same problem. . . . So we have all put our confidence in Paul to get this done, and if it’s misplaced we will find that out.”
Park, the chocolate shop co-owner, was discouraged to learn that Metro had yet to finalize plans for a permanent fix.
“Honestly, I wish that that’s what they were doing for the four months that contraption was in front of our store,” she said. “A permanent solution. That’s what we all want.”
But Agouridis, who once served as a Metro spokeswoman, doesn’t think malfeasance or incompetence are to blame for the delays.
“Everybody would like to have this solved — including Metro, I’m sure,” she said.