Is past really the problem for Metro?

On the one hand, it was refreshing to hear Metro General Manager announce that the transit authority was “embracing” the recommendations contained in a federal audit that criticized lapses in handling federal grants. Agencies under review sometimes stiff arm outside auditors with responses suggesting the auditors are unrealistic or overlooked efforts to comply with the rules.

Richard Sarles
Sarles chats with Metrorail riders. (Tracy A. Woodward – The Washington Post)

On the other hand, Metro’s leadership is getting into the habit of blaming today’s problems on past generations of leaders.

During the special meeting of the Metro board on Monday to review responses to the audit, Sarles took the board members and public back to the start of his term in 2010.

“Four years ago, we faced major issues,” Sarles told the Metro board during its special session Monday. “Safety issues, the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] with their strong recommendations, among that [Metro lacked a ] safety culture. We had deteriorating infrastructure, notably tracks and escalators as examples. We had expired labor agreements. We had major communications issues with our customers and our stakeholders. We had a MetroAccess contract that was expiring. The Silver Line was coming. And the board also wanted to see a new electronic fare payment system.

“Behind the scenes, we had a hunkered down and bunkered organization, weakened over the years before that. We had to give the highest priorities to strengthening those areas of the organization needed to address the challenges that I listed above. In safety, we brought in new staffing, new leadership, and put it in a stronger place in the organization. Logistics was a major problem. We didn’t have spare parts to maintain our system in a timely fashion. in the human relations area, we did not have the ability to deliver the additional staff and put people into positions that were needed for the challenges we faced. … Customer service had to be improved. we needed more maintenance staffing and better maintenance staffing. And the same thing with the communications area.”

If you’ve forgotten by now, this is a meeting to review responses to the federal audit covering April 2012 to March 2013 that found Metro awarded millions in no-bid contracts, skirted contracting rules and appeared to steer work to a preferred vendor. See Lori Aratani’s story on the federal audit.

Sarles then went on to describe Metro’s financial controls, like its train and bus operations, as a work in progress.

“Just like the rebuilding of our infrastructure is not complete, neither is our internal rebuilding complete,” Sarles told the board. “It’s clear that more progress is necessary. We are fully committed to operating Metro in compliance with all FTA [Federal Transit Administration] rules.”

“We do not dispute the 14 findings [of the audit]. Rather, we are embracing the recommendations and we are taking the corrective actions necessary to comply with each and every one of them.”

A comparison between the state of Metro’s financial controls and the state of its train and bus operations should be alarming to the people who use the trains and buses.

Carol Kissal, Metro’s chief financial officer, went on to present a much bleaker review of Metro’s financial times than I’ve heard before from Metro officials: “When I arrived at WMATA in 2009,” she told the board, “I found a financial department that was in a state of chaos.” In her account of that time period, key management positions and the financial systems in use were outdated and inadequate. “I had to start by building the basics.”

“We’ve taken it step by step,” she said.

Apparently, those steps hadn’t taken Metro to the level covered by the audit. These are among the audit conclusions that Metro is embracing: “The grantee [Metro] did not have adequate controls in place to ensure that federal expenditures were incurred and charged to grants in accordance with approved budgets.” Again, the time period is 2012-2013, not a distant memory.

A note about Metro and federal grants: Metro as an institution cares deeply about maintaining the flow of federal money for advancing its equipment purchases and improvement plans. To threaten that flow is to step on Metro’s air hose. So these accountability problems uncovered in the audit don’t involve some incidental expenses. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) made that connection plain last week when she wrote to Sarles, expressing her concern with the audit’s findings: “You need to know that future dedicated funding for Metro is in real jeopardy. Federal funding is stringent. American taxpayers expect value and accountability for every dollar. And so do I. I will not tolerate Metro’s mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.”

The idea that the Metro bureaucracy allowed such a threat to arise in defiance of the organization’s survival instincts is as disturbing as any of the financial details in the audit.

Kissal and her staff went on to lay out their plan to comply with each of the audit’s findings and to do it soon. Their plan, and the fact that it was presented in public, should inspire confidence, up to a point.

It’s impossible to forget the comparison that Sarles himself drew to the rebuilding of the transit services.

After days of disruptions on the Red Line in November, Sarles apologized to riders: “I know that service on the Red Line has not been good over the past several days. Be assured, we are focused on these issues and are taking steps to improve service.”

Having heard that, Red Line riders may not be as inspired about Metro’s financial accountability as Congress is meant to be.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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