By Eric Beech and Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of government workers, tourists and business travelers could face a chaotic commute in the Washington, D.C., area on Wednesday when the second-busiest U.S. subway system will be shut down for emergency safety checks.
The estimated 700,000 people who ride the Washington-area Metro subway system every weekday, including about a third of the region's federal workforce, will have to scramble to get to work and around town while 600 underground cables are inspected.
Katherine Sydor, who works at the U.S. Department of Education, said she was looking at a one-hour walk or a half-hour bike ride to work on Wednesday.
"I assume the streets will be pandemonium ... it's going to be a huge pain," she said.
Transit officials in the U.S. capital announced the unprecedented closure on Tuesday afternoon after a cable fire this week caused delays. The subway, which serves Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, is scheduled to reopen at 5 a.m. (0900 GMT) on Thursday.
The closure of the 119-mile (230-km) subway system, which has been plagued by equipment breakdowns and fires, will allow safety officials to inspect the cables for worn-out casings, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told a news conference.
"Safety first, but, I mean, it's a mess," said Theresa Spinner, a public relations specialist, who has a job interview on Wednesday morning.
The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the federal workforce, said government offices would remain open but federal workers could take unscheduled leave or work from home . Congress and most schools will be open.
The region has some of the worst traffic in the United States. Local radio station WTOP predicted the subway closure would cause "major mayhem" on the roads.
Some Metro riders said they welcomed the shutdown as an indication the system was getting serious about safety even though it would snarl their commutes.
“Washington Metro has become a problem child ... of U.S. metro systems. What was once the pride (of the U.S. system) seems to be allowed to deteriorate to an embarrassing extent," said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
Buses will run normally on Wednesday, and parking will be free in Metro-owned lots and garages, the transit agency said.
San Francisco-based ride-sharing company Lyft said it was expecting high demand and offered new customers $20 off their first ride.
Uber said it would cap surge pricing in the Washington area at 3.9 times base fares during the shutdown. It said it was expanding uberPool coverage across Washington, Maryland and the Virginia metro area.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Peter Cooney)