Independence Day 2003 may take on a whole new meaning for Metro riders.
July is when the first "APT" is scheduled to become operational. The acronym stands for "Automatic Public Toilet." It will be installed at the Huntington Station in Alexandria.
"It was approved by WMATA's Operations Committee last month and will be voted on by the full Board on February 20," according to Dana Kauffman, Lee District Supervisor, who represents Fairfax County on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board.
"Procurement and engineering are to be completed during the period from March to June. Delivery of the facility will be in June and it should be hooked up and operational by July," said Kauffman.
Called the Exeloo-Galaxy Unit, the fully automatic stainless steal facility is made in New Zealand, according to Kauffman. It flushes, dispenses water, soap, paper, all automatically. After every use the toilet itself is sanitized with a chemical cleanser and after every 30 uses the floor is cleaned by automation.
The lack of designated public restrooms throughout the Metro system has been a point of contention with riders and public interest groups. Robert Brubaker, director, Metroped, a non-profit organization "dedicated to removing public policy impediments to pedestrians" has been a leader in getting Metro to change its policy of not providing public restrooms.
The operative word is "public" when it comes to restrooms and Metro. The system has restrooms but under current policy WMATA has noted, a "station manager, at his or her discretion, may allow public access to restrooms by patrons in the following situations:
in emergency situations, with small children, and elderly and/or physically disabled."
Brubaker's assessment of this policy has been, "Metro's refusal to not make their restrooms available on a regular basis is an example of the impediment to commuters and others who would like to use mass transit rather than drive."
METRO OFFICIALS have based their opposition to public restroom facilities on two rationalizations: 1. They are too expensive to service and maintain given the level of ridership; and 2. They can become a haven for crime and/or terrorism.
Both of these arguments have been challenged by Metroped and others. They have noted that other metro systems, such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Chicago system both have public restrooms available. Restrooms are also available at both Washington area airports, all bus terminals, and railroad stations.
"Metro is saying there has to be a two percent increase in ridership to make restrooms available at all stations to be economically feasible," Brubaker claimed. "I just don't believe that because they don't have the data to support it."
The existing restrooms at Metro stations were originally designed for public use, according to Brubaker. "Huntington has a total of 18 stalls with both men and women facilities on each level. That wasn't built for just employees.
"They were patterned after BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] for public use. Somewhere along the line the policy got changed," he insisted. "These large existing restroom were paid for with taxpayer dollars."
METRO OFFICIALS HAVE consistently maintained the opposite, that they were not designed for public use. Another opponent to the existing facilities being made available to the public is Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson. She has expressed the opinion they would be a haven for criminal activities.
Ray Feldmann, Metro's media relations director, has insisted the lack of public restrooms at metro stations was "an intentional move on the part of the original designers.
"Stations were designed without public restrooms for safety reasons. Even the new stations that have been added to the system over the years were not designed with public restrooms. And none are included in future planning at this time."
As for the upcoming test of the new restroom at Huntington, Brubaker is in favor of the experiment but emphasizes, "This is only one station. People need to know there are public restrooms available all along the line."
He also expressed perplexity, stating, "I'm not sure why they are going ahead with the more expensive solution when they have existing facilities." Galaxy's utilization and maintenance will be tested for one year at an estimated cost of approximately $65,000- plus.
HUNTINGTON WAS chosen because it's a "terminal" station, where a line ends or begins. It has long-term parking and, therefore, attracts commuters that make longer trips to and from their ultimate destinations. It also meets Metro's other two criteria:
availability of utility connections and space available near the station manager's kiosk.
Kauffman noted, "For a minimal expenditure we will be able to see if it does provide a facility for the ridership. We will also see if it helps to increase that ridership."
Under the agreed upon plan Metro will negotiate a three year lease with Exeloo at a monthly rate of $3,300 for a single unit. The company will lease the unit for one year with a buy back clause if WMATA is not satisfied. WMATA will be liable for the difference between the unit's capital cost and lease payments plus the buy back price.
Servicing costs are projected at $1,200 per month. Installation of utility connections for electric, water, sewer, and unit deployment, either by WMATA personnel or an independent contractor are estimated at $12,500.
One of WMATA's own Board members, Carton Sickles, representing Montgomery County, endorsed the need for public restrooms at the recent committee meeting when he said, "It's a real problem that's only going to grow as the population ages." He is 81 years old.
As Brubaker pointed out, "This is not just a local issue. Washington draws people from all over the world and they ride Metro. That's why this issue is receiving broad-based media attention."
THAT FACT WAS emphasized in a letter to the chairman of the Metrorail Operations Board, Chris Zimmerman, from Ingrid Nygaard, MD. She is a urogynecologist and associate professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Iowa, College of Medicine.
She wrote, "I spend my days trying to protect and improve women's bladder health ... Issues related to bathroom access are not widely discussed, but are integral to people's ability to use public transportation. Millions of Americans suffer from urinary incontinence, urinary urgency, urinary tract infections, and other diseases that require ready bathroom access in order to function well in society.
"It is my understanding that current Washington subway station restrooms are available only to employees. I urge you to work toward extending the same right to your passengers."