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Metroís little-known amenities

Group seeks public use of transit system restrooms

(Published July 14, 2003)

By ERIN HENK

Staff Writer

For nearly 30 years, hundreds of thousands of Metrorail commuters have been traveling all over the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia without knowing they could get some relief in publicly funded restrooms.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authorityís current restroom policy allows access to almost anyone, yet some citizens are voicing their concern over the fact that they have not been able to use the facilities when they needed to.

The Metro restrooms Ė which are primarily used by transit system employees and are generally located in "safety sensitive" areas of Metrorail stations, near equipment rooms not easily spotted by riders Ė "provide vital services to our train stations," said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. "They keep our trains running."

The current restroom policy allows restroom accessibility to senior citizens, children accompanied by an adult and to any adult in an emergency. All must be escorted to and from the restrooms by the station manager.

But some concerned Metro riders have recently raised their voices to question whether the current policy is being carried out. Fairfax resident Bob Brubaker, who started the Public Restroom Initiative, said that station officers often deny that they have restrooms in the stations.

"What is an emergency?" asked Brubaker, who further criticized the current policy as too restrictive and said many station managers ignore it.

Brubaker said his 82-year-old father was denied access to a Metro restroom when he asked. He said pregnant women also are among riders who have been denied access.

While Metro contends that the restrooms in rail stations were originally intended for employee use only, Brubaker points to the size of some restrooms to support his contention that they were built for public use. He said the Huntington station in Northern Virginia has restrooms with 18 stalls.

There is "no way they can say itís for employees only," Brubaker said.

He said he wants the restroom policy to be publicized with signs in Metro stations and in Metro brochures.

Metro officials counter that public accessibility is not as simple as it may seem. Safety concerns have been heightened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as many restrooms in public areas across the country have been locked to the public.

"I understand the commutersí needs," said Polly Hanson, chief of the Metro Transit Police, "but I get paid to be concerned about safety."

Hanson worked with the original team of security planners for the D.C. Metrorail system. Based on analysis in New York, Philadelphia and Paris, Metro station bathrooms were recognized early as crime promoters, she said. Hanson said Metro police have had to take people out of the restrooms who have injured themselves or who have overdosed on drugs, and there have even been people who have refused to come out. Sanitation concerns are intertwined with safety issues as well. Drug paraphernalia also has been found in the restrooms.

"The majority of stations do ... allow access to the Metro bathrooms," Hanson said.

However, she said Metro needs to improve the customer service skills of some station managers.

Currently, a committee of Metroís maintenance, operations and police divisions is conducting an analysis of all restrooms in the 83 Metro stations to assess which ones can be used by the public without compromising the safety of employees and commuters. Factors being considered include the proximity of restrooms to station kiosks, the number of managers who work at the station at any given time, whether the restroom is located inside the turnstyle and if there are other public facilities located near the Metro station.

The findings are expected to be presented to the Metro board sometime this fall. The board will then decide if the restroom policy should be changed or publicized.

Putting up signs about the restrooms would satisfy Bob Brubaker.

"If they want them locked up, so be it," he said.

Brubaker said he believes signs and brochures about the policy would yield a positive public response at a low cost.

"We have to solve the problem," said Carlton Sickles, a Metro board member who feels the current system isnít working because people donít know about it. "There needs to be information put out about what the policy is. ... One has to be able to make an appropriate request and [the station managers] cannot arbitrarily deny it," he said.

Discussion of the Metro restroom policy over the past year has prompted WMATAís Board of Directors to test a self-cleaning toilet at the Huntington Metro station. The $66,500 Automated Self-Cleaning Pilot Test (APT) program will be installed at the north mezzanine entrance and will be equipped with vandal-resistant walls and handicapped-accessible facilities.

The pilot programís cost will include $14,400 for restroom maintenance. Metro officials said they could not immediately provide information about how much is currently spent on restroom maintenance in Metro stations.

Next year, the pilot project will be evaluated by Metro board members in terms of customer feasibilty, safety, cleanliness and ridership changes, Taubenkibel said.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator