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If you're a Metrorail rider, you're accustomed to inconveniences. Track work, trains that run late, fellow passengers whose hygiene practices leave something to be desired, garbage cans that aren't around when you need one. Better to hum along with Gloria Estefan on your Walkman, practice your deep-breathing exercises, read the paper. And even as you gaze around the platform one last time, your eyes searching fruitlessly for a trash receptacle before you finally drop your empty Coke can onto the tiled floor, a little voice at the back of your mind is telling you soothingly that somewhere, right at this very moment, some capable county bureaucrat is figuring out how to right this minor wrong, looking out for your best interests, stitching up all the little flaws in the urban infrastructure.
Manny Palmeiro, marketing manager for the Metro-Dade Transit Agency (MDTA), is that upstanding bureaucrat. And boy, is he looking out for your best interests: After Tokyo's subway system was targeted by nerve-gas-happy terrorists, MDTA director Chester Colby ordered that the large garbage cans be taken from every Metrorail and Metromover station. "We removed the trash cans as a precaution, so that people couldn't hide anything in there," Palmeiro explains.
Transit officials say they received warnings regarding the possibility of copycat gassers from both the Metro-Dade Police Department and the Federal Transit Administration, which sent out a nationwide memo urging transit directors to beef up security. "I don't know if I would say that we were concerned [about a poison gas attack], but these are security measures and that's what we took," says Roberto Aleman, MDTA's chief of facilities maintenance. "We also put our Wackenhut agents on alert," he adds, referring to the county-contracted private security guards who patrol the Metrorail route.
Other transit agencies around the U.S. also kept their eyes peeled for terrorists distributing free samples of cyanide, but few were as thorough as Metro-Dade. New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority -- the nation's largest subway system, with an estimated 3.5 million riders each day -- boosted its level of alert and is developing an emergency policy for dealing with gas attacks. San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit, with 255,000 daily passengers, took a similar approach, although spokesman Ron Rodriguez wouldn't specify exactly what precautions were taken. "I'm being deliberately ambiguous because I don't want the bad guys to find out what we did," comments Rodriguez. San Francisco did not remove trash receptacles, says Rodriguez, because their small openings aren't conducive to disseminating deadly quantities of nerve gas.
With the trash cans in storage, MDTA officials resolved to cure themselves of a recurring headache: Since 1984, when Metrorail opened, the agency has had to remove the trash receptacles from all 21 stations (and, since 1986, all Metromover stops, which now also number 21) whenever a hurricane threatens Dade. In high winds, the $400 cans, constructed of concrete and weighing 500 pounds apiece, could pose a danger to people and property.
Amid the recent can-clearing, one valuable lesson seems to have been learned. Despite their potential to take flight in a gale, in calmer weather the receptacles did perform an undeniable function: They held a lot of trash. It was this quality, no doubt, that inspired MDTA to reinstall the cans earlier this month at Metrorail's busiest stops -- Government Center, South Miami, and the two Dadeland stations -- through which an estimated 20,000 riders pass each day with their newspapers, their candy wrappers, and their beverage containers. And by next month, Manny Palmeiro promises, every station will be equipped with new trash containers -- lightweight and ostensibly terrorist-resistant.