Judge orders Metro’s ‘banana peel man’ to undergo psychological screening

The District Heights man dubbed Metro’s “banana peel man” was ordered to undergo a psychological screening Tuesday by a D.C. Superior Court judge.

Judge Anita Josey-Herring ordered Maurice Owens, 42, for the screening based on a request from his attorney, Henry Escoto.

Owens slipped into notoriety last summer when he sued Metro after claiming he fell on a banana peel. Owens told Metro police he was riding an elevator at the Potomac Avenue Metro station Aug. 8, 2013, when he slipped on a banana peel as he was getting off, injuring his hip and leg. The District Heights man sued the transit agency for $15,000 — in part to cover $4,500 in chiropractor bills.

But the whole incident was caught on videotape — and it showed something different.

On the video, Owens could be seen going into an empty elevator at the station.

He paces around a bit, then glances up into the elevator’s camera. More pacing. Another glance at the camera. In fact, in the video, which is about 90 seconds long, Owens is seen looking into the camera at least three times.

Toward the end of the video, as the elevator doors open, Owens can be seen flipping something onto the floor behind him. According to a Metro Transit Police report, “this object was later identified as a banana peel.”

In a dramatic gesture, Owens falls to the ground — half his body inside the elevator.

His claim against Metro was thrown out, and Owens, 42, was charged with second-degree fraud, a felony. Owens is considering a plea deal from prosecutors that would reduce the charge to a misdemeanor.

Owens is scheduled to return to court Friday.


State apologizes for damage to homes along I-270

WASHINGTON – Maryland highway officials apologized Tuesday after several people living along Interstate 270 in Rockville and Germantown reported their windows were broken late last week by ice and rocks that apparently came over the highway’s 20-foot tall sound barrier.

“This is not normal, it’s not acceptable, and we believe it was a contractor using a snow thrower, so for anybody who’s had damages to their home or property, they can file a claim to get reimbursed,” says Valerie Burnette Edgar with the State Highway Administration.

These types of insurance claims are handled through the Maryland State Treasurer’s Office, using a “Notice of Claim” form.

Homeowners with damage can also call the Treasurer’s Office at 800-942-0162.

“If it is indeed, we believe, our contractor, the state will seek to get the damages covered by the contractor,” Burnette Edgar says.

About 70 percent of SHA snow-removal workers are part of contract crews who go through much of the same training that state employees do.

“We’re also going to take a look at what happened, and make sure we work with the contractor and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she says.

Normally, Burnette Edgar says extra snow would be pushed onto wide shoulders, space between the highway and ramps or other spaces, but the overwhelming amount of snow led to the use of snow blowers to keep the pavement clear for drivers.

“Snow piled up in a big mound on the side of the road is a hazard, so they needed to get that off the shoulders and out of the way, particularly on a high-speed interstate. It’s obviously not acceptable to have it go into a residential area like that, and we truly regret and apologize for that inconvenience and problem for the residents,” she says.

In Rockville, Mary Plummer said it sounded like an avalanche.

In Germantown, Joseph Belcher and his wife Kristi say their 3-year-old son was right next to a window when the rocks came flying.

Burnette Edgar says SHA is not aware of any similar reports of issues on any other interstates or other state roads during the recent storms.

“Thus far, it seems to be an isolated incident along I-270. Every storm where we get a lot of accumulation, there’s some mailboxes and things like that that we have to repair, and we just ask for patience, and that you please file a claim with us,” she says.

Some of those smaller claims can be submitted through the SHA’s own online form. But that is not considered valid notice to the state for anyone who may be interested in filing an insurance claim through the Treasurer’s Office.

Towing company breaking state law by staking out parking lot

WASHINGTON — Towing companies in Maryland are continuing a predatory practice, despite a recently passed law meant to stop it, according to a NBC Washington report.

Legislation went into effect in 2012 prohibiting “spotters.” Those are employees hired by towing companies to stake out a certain location and look for cars they can haul away.

“Somebody who just stands on the street or hides in a garage or building just waiting on someone to walk off the property, one false step, waiting for someone to exceed the limit by one minute,” Eric Friedman, an investigator with Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection, tells NBC Washington.

NBC Washington’s investigative team watched as spotters perused the lots at Blairs Shopping Center in Silver Spring. Signs are posted around the parking lot saying “Walk Offs Will be Towed,” which means drivers can’t park in the lot and leave the property.

Moments after drivers left the property, spotters snapped photos of the car and towed them in many cases. In one instance, the spotters incorrectly identified a man leaving and towed his car though he was legally parked there.

According to Friedman, spotters are most active in areas around shopping malls.

“A lot of consumers don’t realize that somebody is watching them in many cases,” Friedman tells NBC Washington.

NBC Washington reports at least one company, G&G Towing, is suing the state, claiming the law is unconstitutional and oppressive.

Drivers who suspect they have fallen victim to a spotter should report the incident.

Buses replace trains on 2 Metro lines this weekend

WASHINGTON (AP) — Buses will replace trains on sections of the orange and blue lines this weekend.

Metro says beginning Friday at 10 p.m. and continuing through closing on Sunday, buses will replace orange line trains between Eastern Market and Cheverly. On the blue line, buses will replace trains between Eastern Market and Benning Road. Elsewhere on both lines, trains will run at 15 minute intervals.

On the green line, trains will operate at regular weekend intervals except at the Greenbelt station where trains will arrive and depart every 20 to 25 minutes between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. On the red line, trains will operate every 16 minutes, but between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. additional trains will run between Van Ness and Silver Spring.

No yellow line work is scheduled.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Grammy winner analyzes Metro announcements: Unclear

WASHINGTON (WUSA9) – Now a Grammy winning sound engineer’s analysis has found 95% of Metrorail announcements tested unacceptable, but – even in the wake of a similar WUSA9 test published over a week ago – WMATA won’t answer questions on the subject or even acknowledge the scope of the problem.

“Five percent maybe, at most,” is what sound engineer Pete Novak deemed understandable during a recent 19 stop spot-check on the Redline. “It’s getting lost. Not a clue.”

Metro won’t answer our questions, maybe they’ll answer yours. You can e-mail the WMATA Board of Directors here: BoardofDirectors@wmata.com.

An earlier WUSA9 analysis found 79% of Metro announcements unclear or worse.

Despite the WUSA9 analysis, social media outcries identifying similar commuter concerns, and a WUSA9 public #MetroIntervention on the subject at Farragut North, WMATA’s only response to the engineer’s analysis has been to re-issue the same statement it released for our original story of audio problems.

“Mystery riders found that announcements were understandable 85 percent of the time,” said Caroline Laurin in the re-issued statement. “It is important to note that we will soon begin the replacement of more than a third of Metro’s fleet–every 1000- and 4000-series car–with new 7000-series cars that feature all digital audio systems and automated announcements for improved clarity and consistency.”

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles recently estimated the year 2020 as when half the fleet could be updated with the 7000 series audio systems, pending funding.

Novak doesn’t know trains, but he does know sound.

He won his Grammy for the Outkast Album of the Year, “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.”

He is also an engineer and instructor at Rockville’s Omega Studios.

During his Redline review, Novak cocked his head and expressed confusion at nearly every announcement.

“Not a clue. Soup?” Novak asked trying to interpret one announcement. “So much static in that message.”

Novak identified what he believes could be inexpensive, quick fixes to the problem.

He believes audio levels should be increased, operators should be trained to better use the microphones and enunciate, announcements should be prevented from being made at the same time as the trains automated doors closing warnings, and train speaker systems should be combined.

“”The automated announcement are a good 20 decibels louder than what’s coming out of the from the conductor,” Novak said of warnings from the separate automated speaker system.

He said design issues could be impacting the other speakers serving the operator’s announcements.

“So that speaker is very directional,” Novak said. “Coming straight down. It’s getting lost. It might need to be mounted different.”

“You can have two things going over the same speaker, he said as another unclear announcement interrupted him. “I still don’t know where we’re going next.”

WUSA9 offered to share with WMATA Novak’s opinions that some easy changes could make big improvements, but Metro did respond.


Instead of talking about improved performance, we’re left with “improved” notifications about worse performance.

Metro crowding
With big crowds and trains tightly spaced, even a small delay can have a big impact on rush hour. (Susan Biddle for The Washington Post)

The transit staff plans to update Metro board members on how it manages severe delays on Metrorail and communicates with riders caught up in them. But most items in this progress report involve behind-the-scenes actions that passengers would have a tough time noticing.

Here are a few of the more visible developments cited in the staff report:

  • Electronic display screens have been installed above the kiosks at station entrances to warn riders of delays before they go through the fare gates.
  • More than 75,000 riders are signed up to receive Metro’s electronic alerts about delays and serious incidents.
  • The latest version of Metro’s mobile Web site has a breaking news bar on every page to highlight incidents that may cause severe delays.

Given the great frustration riders voice during severe delays, that list isn’t going to wow them. If Metro had a way to routinely allow riders to exit the fare gates without paying during a serious incident, that would get their attention. The red and blue kiosk signs are a partial solution to this problem, as long as riders remember to look at them before going through the gates.


New Metro Silver Line, like other Metrorail lines, won’t run express trains

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Has Metro considered an express option for the Silver Line, or any other line where service duplicates that of another line?

For example, could the Silver Line (when it finally opens) offer local service through theTysons Corner stops to where it merges with the Orange Line, and then go to express mode until, say, Foggy Bottom?

Silver Line riders needing stops in Virginia could switch at the merge, but those bound for the District could — in theory — save substantial amounts of time. As the Silver Line extends farther into western Fairfax and Loudoun counties — and even for those boarding in Reston — this could provide a needed incentive for single-occupant vehicles to park and ride.

— Jeff Wiese, Reston

No express service for the Silver Line or any other line. Neither the original system nor the new 11-mile extension to the Reston area was built with an extra track, which would allow trains to skip stations and bypass local trains.

This is not an unusual design for a U.S. subway system. These things aren’t cheap or easy to build.

Metrorail’s original construction costs and the disruptions of neighborhoods often threatened its completion. With the Silver Line, cost was a constant concern. In 2008, theFederal Transit Administration threatened to withhold funds because of the Silver Line’s cost.

A third track for the Silver Line would be real nice. So would a tunnel through McLean and Tysons Corner. So would an underground station near where the airplanes are at Dulles International Airport. None of those things are happening, because the cost was deemed too high.

Still, it’s easy to see Wiese’s point about the benefits of express trains. Wiese, who lives a long walk from the temporary end of the Silver Line at the Wiehle-Reston East station, expects to find many people coming in from western Fairfax and Loudoun counties as they transfer to rail for the last part of their D.C.-bound commute.

Metro and Fairfax planners also expect to see that. The garage at the Wiehle Avenue station, which can accommodate 2,300 cars and 150 bicycles, is the only one built for the five new stations.

Many bus routes will be adjusted to funnel travelers into the Wiehle Avenue station. Metro will halt its Rush Plus service on the Orange Line and shift those peak-period trains to the Silver Line so that the Silver Line can operate every six minutes during rush hours.

But Metro calculates the normal travel time between Wiehle Avenue and Metro Center at 41 minutes. That’s a fairly long time on a train. Shady Grove to Metro Center is 36 minutes. Vienna to Metro Center is 29 minutes.

The Silver Line travel times reflect the varied missions of this project. Among them: Move commuters, offer a one-seat transit link between the region’s center and the airport and provide focal points for transit-oriented development. They’re all important, but they don’t always mesh smoothly.

An air traveler bound for the District would prefer an express from Dulles to the District. A commuter who boards at Wiehle Avenue and works at the Pentagon or Crystal City wants a stop at Rosslyn for a switch to the Blue Line.

Neither of those riders will be interested in the four stops in Tysons Corner, each stop two minutes apart.

The service plan that Metro developed over the past several years is consistent with the Silver Line’s environmental impact statement, which dates to 2002. That document previews the shifting of Orange Line trains to the Silver Line, with the resulting decline in rush-hour service between Vienna and West Falls Church.

It does not make a case for express trains. Even if that could be done within Metro’s existing structure, it would require a significant cut in service for commuters waiting at stations from Ballston through the District.

As Metro’s planners look ahead to 2025 and beyond, they’re still not thinking of express tracks along existing lines, as travelers find on the New York subway. But they are looking at several other possibilities that would help move people across Northern Virginia and into the District.

A key element in the 2025 plan is a proposal to either add a track at Rosslyn to create a new link between the Blue Line and the Orange and Silver lines or open a second Rosslyn station for the Blue Line. In either case, transit staffers say, it would allow Metro to push more trains through Rosslyn and cut waiting times.

Either one would cost about $1 billion.

Beyond that, the planners are talking about the possibility of creating an inner loop of stations to add capacity in the region’s core by 2040. That would include another Potomac River crossing for trains at Rosslyn.

Add many billions more for that plan, if it someday gets approved by the region’s governments.

This is why our big plans progress like our train rides: one stop at a time.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or
e-mail .

Metro beats driving for the morning commute

Metro subway during a morning commute in Washington. (REUTERS)

In the Feb. 2 Commuter Page feature “Franconia to D.C.: Go!” Robert Thomson and Mark Berman compared taking Metro to driving on a trip from Franconia to the District. Both needed roughly the same amount of time en route, but their “final thoughts” mentioned the value of enjoying the comfort of one’s own car (albeit in slow-moving traffic), rather than waiting on a chilly platform for a Metro train.

In fact, the quality-of-life differences between the two commutes are far more stark than that. Riders who board Metro at the end of the line (i.e., Franconia-Springfield) are likely to get a seat for the whole ride. Unlike drivers, Metro riders waste no mental energy attending to stop-and-go traffic or asking a GPS for an alternate route. The long-distance Metro passenger is free to do a crossword puzzle, read, check e-mail or even take a nap — arriving at one’s destination potentially less stressed and fresher.

As our region continues to grow, providing our residents with less stressful options as they move around the region is good for all of us. More transit riders mean fewer cars on the road.

Mary Hynes, Arlington

The writer, vice chair of the Arlington County Board, is a member of the WMATA board of directors.

Tips on clearing out after snowstorm

Snowy street

You may be clearing your driveway before the plow reaches your street. Push snow to the right, so plows won’t cover your work. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Most people in the D.C. region will begin their post-storm travels as pedestrians, whether they like it or not. Here are some tips for getting around.

Clearing sidewalks. Rules vary, but most jurisdictions expect property owners to get out within a certain number of hours and clear their sidewalks. The District, for example, has a rule that sidewalks should be cleared of snow and ice within eight hours after the end of a storm. They don’t expect you to throw the snow in the street. When clearing driveways, toss the snow to the right. That makes it less likely the plow will push that snow back across the driveway entrance.

When clearing your own sidewalk, think about neighbors who may be elderly or disabled, and save a little energy for their walkways.

Metro doesn’t clear the bus stops or the areas around them. Metro does clear areas around rail station entrances and the above-ground platforms. Some platforms have a new type of paving tile that is less slippery, but some still have the original, slip-prone paving tiles.

Before starting to clear snow, try using Pam or car wax on the shovel blade, so the snow will slide off more easily. With a heavy snow like this, give your back a break by skimming off a top layer first, then making a second scoop down to the pavement. Think twice about parking in a street space your neighbor just cleared out. That probably won’t end well.

If you are driving, be extra careful of pedestrians. They’re more likely to be walking in the streets in the immediate aftermath of a storm.

Highway departments generally don’t clear bike paths.

Clearing streets. Much of the clearing work goes to contractors, whose trucks might not bear the emblem of the agency that hired them. The D.C. departments of public works and transportation team up on street clearing in the city. The Virginia Department of Transportation takes care of interstates, main roads and neighborhood streets within its turf. The Maryland State Highway Administration handles the state’s numbered roads, while counties and municipalities take care of the rest.

Highways in the D.C. area are in much better shape as of 10:45 a.m. than they were at dawn, but road surface conditions vary a lot across the region. Many drivers will have difficulty getting out of their neighborhoods. The initial goal for the plows working the neighborhood streets is to make them “passable.” That doesn’t mean you’ll see bare pavement soon.

If you are planning to drive to an airport in the D.C. area, be sure to check on your flight first. Many Thursday flights from Dulles, Reagan National and BWI airports have been cancelled.

Snow emergency routes. Some jurisdictions require owners to get their vehicles off snow emergency routes after the jurisdiction declares an emergency. This affects many District residents, where the Public Works Department tows vehicles remaining on those routes and imposes stiff fines.

Waiting for transit. Most of the D.C. region’s bus systems suspended service for Thursday morning. So did MetroAccess, the paratransit service. Watch for updates on restoration. This is the link to The Post’s storm updates. Metrobus’s Next Bus system, designed to provide real-time information on when the bus should arrive at your stop, doesn’t perform well during weather disruptions. So even as bus service is restored, don’t count on the accuracy of the prediction system.

See storm updates from the Capital Weather Gang.