Manager Seeks $150 Million for Urgent Repairs

Crumbling concrete at outdoor stations is one of Metro's many priorities, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said.
Crumbling concrete at outdoor stations is one of Metro's many priorities, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said. (By Alfredo Duarte Pereira -- El Tiempo Latino)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

Metro has $150 million in capital projects that need to be funded immediately to maintain safe and reliable operation of the rail system, including a power system upgrade and repairs to track equipment and deteriorating station platforms, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said yesterday.

"We've put together an 'immediate needs list' of things that we need to do right now," he said. The list includes buying transformers for power substations to supply the electricity required to run more eight-car trains; $20 million to replace 120,000 worn metal fasteners that help keep tracks secure; and funds to repair concrete under eight outdoor station platforms.

Metro doesn't have the money for these projects, Catoe said during a meeting with reporters to mark his one-year anniversary as manager. The transit agency plans to present its short- and long-term capital needs to the Metro board next month and to review options for funding them, such as borrowing money.

Catoe plans to present the transit agency's 10-year capital program, which begins in 2010, to the board in the spring. He estimates it will exceed $3 billion.

Metro's capital and repair needs were cited by federal officials last week when they said the proposed Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport would not qualify for federal funds. Metro is the only major transit agency that does not have a reliable stream of funding on which to base capital planning.

Catoe said he and Metro officials have been regularly updating federal officials, including a session two weeks ago with Federal Transit Administration Administrator James S. Simpson. Asked about a report published in the Washington Examiner quoting Simpson as saying that Metro has $7 billion in unfunded needs, Catoe said yesterday, "I don't know where that number came from."

FTA officials yesterday said there was a misunderstanding between Simpson and the Examiner.

Despite the FTA's comments using Metro's funding needs to question the viability of the project, Catoe backed the rail extension project. The Metro board voted last year to take control of the line after it was built, and Metro has the financial and operating capacity to run it, he said. The first full year of operation of the extension's first phase would increase Metro's total operating and maintenance costs by about 3 percent, he said.

On Friday, Simpson mentioned a letter that was sent to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority by a Metro employee that raised concerns about the authority's management of the project. The letter, Simpson said, highlights divisions and discord within the consortium of agencies behind the project. Several project supporters, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations, said that the letter was a typical mid-level communication and that the FTA is blowing its significance out of proportion.

Yesterday, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said he wrote a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters saying that he had asked Virginia officials to bring in outside transportation experts to address the FTA's concerns about Dulles.

As for Metro's pressing needs, one of the most urgent is upgrading its electric substations, also known as traction power substations. The substations convert energy from utility companies into 750-volt direct current to operate the trains.

For Metro to meet its goal of running more eight-car trains during rush hour by the spring of 2009, the agency needs to replace transformers at many substations. The longer trains draw 33 percent to 50 percent more power than six-car or four-car trains. Failed transformers and a lack of spares were a cause of power failures in August that virtually crippled the subway system for two days.

Catoe said he wants to focus on improving safety and reliability during his second year. He arrived at Metro after three employees were killed by Metro trains. There had also been a derailment as well as pedestrian accidents involving buses.

Metro has retrained bus operators and put in place an authority-wide safety improvement program in an effort to reduce accidents and injuries by half within five years.

To improve train reliability, officials have reduced the number of debris fires and mechanical breakdowns through more thorough cleaning. The agency also is trying to repair ongoing door problems with one series of rail cars and identify what is causing brakes to lock up on its oldest series of rail cars.

Catoe also said Metrorail ridership is up slightly since the largest fare increases in agency history went into effect Jan. 6. Rail ridership is up by 1 percent overall and 2.6 percent on weekdays, according to Metro staff, but officials said it was too early to know whether the increase was statistically significant.

Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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