Fixing Metro

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

IN LAST WEEK'S detailed series on persistent financial and safety problems at Metro, Post reporters Lyndsey Layton and Jo Becker kept coming up against the same issue: In myriad ways, the Washington public transit system lacks objective, outside oversight. Metro has an auditor general, for example, but that person is appointed by and answers to Metro management. Until recently, his internal audits were not even made available to the board of directors. Metro has a safety department, but it, too, is appointed by and answerable to management. Until a recent reorganization, partly prompted by the work of the two Post reporters, the safety department had few resources and no ability to oversee implementation of its recommendations or to ensure that those who failed to meet safety rules suffered some consequences.

Clearly, for Metro to operate more professionally, it should have financial and safety auditors with some independence. There is no need to invent a system from scratch: Across the country, states such as California have independent public transportation safety boards, which monitor everything from equipment purchase to maintenance and which have the resources to follow up on their recommendations. The federal government has inspectors general who have outsider status within their organizations: Metro needs one of those, too. Because both changes may require congressional legislation, they should be examined in the context of the Metro hearings that Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) has promised to hold this summer.

But for any legislation to have lasting positive impact, Metro's financial and governance problems need to be viewed in a larger context. Thirty years ago, at Metro's creation, it might have made sense for its board to consist of six local politicians, working part time. As the system consumes more money and serves more riders, it may need more professional directors whose primary allegiance is to the system as a whole. Local politicians, understandably, tend to put the concerns of their own constituents first: A recent decision to run trains later into the night appealed to the District politicians on the board, for example, but cut the amount of time available for maintenance. At the very least, the board needs both a representative of Metro's riders and a representative of the federal government, which is ultimately responsible for Metro and benefits directly: Nearly half of Metro's riders are federal employees.

But the federal government also needs to return more seriously to the question of funding. The Post series contained many eloquent illustrations of wasteful spending. But at a deeper level, it is important to remember that the subway system, most of which was built at the same time, is now aging at the same time, even as it serves more people. The lack of a dedicated, reliable funding stream damages its ability to maintain its current service, keep up with ridership and maintain equipment. Congress needs to study how such funding can be provided. In the long term, a crippled Metro will also harm the federal government, which depends upon it.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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