What really derails Metro

Sunday, February 14, 2010

EVEN SCARIER than Friday's derailment of a Metro train is what might have happened if it hadn't left the tracks. Initial reports suggest that the train was on the wrong track when a safety device intentionally stopped it to prevent a possible collision with another train. The alarming incident is but the latest evidence of the deterioration of a system that is vital to Washington and its citizens. Events have so eroded confidence in Metro's safety and reliability that it's time the region's political, business and civic leaders address the crisis.

Thankfully, there were only a few minor injuries when a Red Line train derailed near the Farragut North Station. The timing -- as Washington struggled back to normality after a week of snow closed the federal government and much of the area -- underscored the importance of Metro to the area and its increasing inability to meet those needs. Even before the derailment, Metro on Friday was slow, spotty and cramped. And this follows an eight-month string of fatal accidents, safety failures and other misadventures that are fast turning what was one of the region's best assets into a dangerous liability.

The system faces funding problems, and, to make its situation even more perilous, it will soon be without a general manager in the wake of John B. Catoe Jr.'s decision to retire. The first order of business must be to stabilize the leadership and day-to-day operations. Clearly, though, the system's problems extend beyond the replacement of one leader to the structure and operation of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. It is governed by a board comprised of elected and appointed officials from the District, Maryland, and Virginia and, just recently added, representatives from the federal government. Such a structure may have made sense in the 1960s when the Metro system was being built, but it's become increasingly obvious that running an aging rail system is a very different challenge.

Those who have long observed the WMATA board say it is hard for members -- particularly elected officials -- to take off the parochial hats of their jurisdictions in favor of regional interests. Case in point is the opposition of some Virginia members of the board to acting general manager Dan Tangherlini because he was seen as more predisposed to D.C. interests. Given the complexity of the problems facing the system, we also have to wonder about the efficacy of the revolving door of chairmen who serve one year and members who have divided attentions and limited time.

Six years ago, leaders from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Federal City Council and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, alarmed about Metro's finances, put together a task force whose work led to a dedicated source of money for Metro. The crisis facing Metro today is every bit as serious. It is time to review, and ultimately to change, how Metro is governed.

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