Md. senator assails D.C. Metro managers over safety

By Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 11, 2009; A01

Metro board Chairman Jim Graham said Thursday that the transit agency will soon announce a reorganization and substantial management changes, hours after Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) angrily criticized senior managers at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

Mikulski testified that Metro has been paying "lip service" to lapses in safety oversight and accountability. She said she was "really hot about this" and called on the Metro board to take "appropriate and immediate action."

"They need a more vigorous and aggressive form of management at Metro," said Mikulski, stabbing a finger in the air during testimony before a Senate transportation subcommittee, which called the hearing to consider the Obama administration's proposal to overhaul safety regulation of the nation's subway and light-rail systems.

Graham said that an announcement could come as soon as Friday and that General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. was finalizing details, suggesting that the transit chief might survive the shake-up. Graham declined to provide specifics about what changes would be made. He said that they were in the works before Mikulski's criticisms but that, "obviously, the senator's comments drive the issues home."

"It's clearly past time for there to be some very substantial management changes at Metro," said Graham, who is also a member of the D.C. Council. "We're going to change Metro, and it's going to happen very rapidly."

Mikulski delivered the most forceful criticism of Metro since a June crash in Northeast Washington that killed nine people. Since then, two workers were fatally injured in incidents on the tracks. And late last month, one Metro train smashed into another at a rail yard in Northern Virginia, injuring three workers and causing at least $9 million in damage.

Articles in The Washington Post over the past six months have documented safety lapses and oversight failures that preceded those incidents.

Metro has made two recent organizational changes. After The Post reported last month that Metro had barred independent safety monitors from walking live tracks, officials announced that safety chief Alexa Dupigny-Samuels would be supervised by Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn. Citing a budget shortfall, Catoe also eliminated the third-highest job at the agency, held by Emeka Moneme, who was Dupigny-Samuels's boss and oversaw safety, information technology and human resources.

Mikulski's criticism was especially striking because she has been a key supporter of Metro on Capitol Hill, where she worked to secure dedicated federal funding for the transit agency. She is a member of the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee, which advanced a bill to provide $150 million for Metro capital projects, with priority given to urgent safety upgrades. The funding, long sought by Metro and the Washington area delegation, passed the House on Thursday. The Senate is expected to approve it next week before it is sent to President Obama to be signed into law.

"We've gotten them the money," Mikulski said at the hearing. "We now need fresh aggressive management at the Metro, and we need to have federal standards."

Asked by a reporter whether she was calling for Catoe to step down, Mikulski declined to answer directly. "The board needs to establish benchmarks of performance and hold the management team responsible," she said. "I'm not the personnel director, but the board is charged with the operation, reliability and safety of Metro."

She said the public "has a real confidence gap" in Metro. She said Metro's approach to addressing problems is to have meetings. "Catoe wants to have a meeting with me," she said. "I don't want to have a meeting. I want action."

Catoe told reporters after the hearing that Mikulski was "bringing up the frustration we all share. I will hold my people accountable, and I expect to be held accountable. I will commit every ounce of my energy to focus on our safety issues, and I'm making the same commitment of my staff."

He also said Metro would be devoting $4 million more to safety training for workers, which he hoped would "take away some of the concerns" for Mikulski and riders. But Metro would have to make "tough choices," he said. Additional training for bus and rail operators will mean overtime costs.

Mikulski asked U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to investigate after The Post report on Metro barring safety monitors from live tracks. "Metro cannot turn inspectors away or say when and where they can inspect the tracks," Mikulski testified.

Last week, Metro allowed monitors access to the tracks.

In a letter to Mikulski, LaHood said he had directed the Federal Transit Administration to speed up an audit of the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the monitoring group that oversees Metro safety. The Government Accountability Office is also conducting an audit of Metro's safety oversight.

Subcommittee members expressed broad support for the administration's plan to overhaul transit safety oversight and said they hope to fast-track legislation early next year.

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