The Baltimore Metro Subway, which carries about 45,000 people a day, will be partially shut down for more than three weeks starting July 22 for what the Maryland Transit Administration called critical maintenance work, the MTA said Tuesday.
The closure of part of the nearly 33-year-old system comes amid growing problems for the nation's aging mass transit infrastructure as exemplified by the Washington Metro, which has experienced several breakdowns this year and faces a significant backlog of maintenance and repairs.
Service between Mondawmin Mall and Milford Mill on the Baltimore Metro will be shut down from July 22 through Aug. 14, closing the Reisterstown Plaza, Rogers Avenue and West Cold Spring stations. The MTA will run free shuttle buses between those stations for the duration of the project. A separate express shuttle will run directly between the Milford Mill and Mondawmin stations.
Service will continue between Milford Mill and Owings Mills, and between Mondawmin, downtown and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"This necessary and critical rail work will further enhance service safety and reliability, and allow trains to move faster through this corridor of the Metro track," said Sandy Arnette, a spokeswoman for the MTA, which first announced the closure in March.
The $16 million project involves reconstructing three interlockings, the devices that allow trains to cross from one track to another, the MTA said. Crews also will replace old rails, improve the stations and clean, the administration said.
Arnette said the work and the shutdown have been planned for more than a year, but the administration waited to announce it to the public "because people could forget."
Mike McMillan, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, which represents the subway's workers, called the repair work badly needed — and nearly two years overdue.
One of the three outdated interlockings, on the southbound tracks between the West Cold Spring and Mondawmin stations, was in such disrepair that for the past year operators have slowed trains down to 20 mph from their normal 50 mph to avoid a derailment, McMillan said.
The MTA ordered the slowdown in accordance with industry standards, Arnette said.
"When track is observed to exhibit worn conditions, it is judged as having a lesser classification rating and safe train operation can be achieved by lowering the operating speed commensurate with the wear characteristics," Arnette said in a statement.
McMillan called the practice a "Band-Aid" for a larger problem.
Aging railroad ties, the wooden supports laid perpendicular under the rails, were splitting in some sections, said McMillan, a former train operator and station attendant. The splitting ties have long been a "serious concern" of subway workers because of the possibility of a derailment.
Safety is the MTA's priority, Arnette said, and the interlocking equipment is simply nearing the end of its useful life.
Bill Bralove, a former member of the MTA Citizens Advisory Committee, said he was flabbergasted by the administration's plan.
"To just turn it off for three weeks?" said Bralove, 65, of Randallstown. "It's incredible to me how they think people can rearrange their jobs, their schedules, their lives in the hottest part of the season because the MTA has failed to maintain this system for 25 years."
The MTA is suggesting riders who need to traverse the closed section plan for an extra hour each way. The shuttles — 70 yellow school buses — will run at 10-, 20- and 30-minute intervals, officials said, based on the time of day.
The administration opted to do the work during the summer because the system is regularly used by students during the school year.
"We chose to schedule this maintenance work during the summer when schools are closed and many people are on vacation to help minimize the impact on our riders," Arnette said.
The MTA communicated the subway closure plan to city officials, said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Bralove, who takes the subway several times a week for a volunteer job at the attorney general's office in downtown Baltimore, said he plans to take the three weeks off rather than wait an extra hour both ways and ride a school bus. But he wonders what the shutdown will mean for people who don't have that option and aren't able to get to their jobs on time.
MTA officials "wipe it off like it's a little inconvenience for a day or two," he said. "It's three weeks."
The 23-day shutdown period is just a day shy of the longest planned Washington Metro closure as officials there undertake an aggressive, yearlong overhaul of the system following years of neglect and breakdowns.
The repairs in Baltimore, Bralove said, are anything but routine.
"That's like going in and having a heart and lung transplant and saying, 'I've had my annual checkup,'" he said. "They've taken routine maintenance and delayed it until it becomes an emergency maintenance problem."