Page 2 of 3   <       >

Safety, budget woes threaten to consume Metro

An examination of the nation's second largest rail transit system comes at a time when Metro tries to weather an unprecedented season of danger and dismay.

"Our models suggest that by 2025 we run out of capacity in the rail system," said Nat Bottigheimer, assistant general manager of planning and joint development. "That is a conservative forecast. . . . We might be behind the curve already."

Although much of the discussion of Metro's woes revolves around immediate problems with safety, breakdowns and budgets, veterans of the system say the main culprit is a bureaucratic culture that has failed to shift from the focus on building the system to perpetually repairing a rail network to keep it running safely and efficiently.

"Metro has been on this path to failure for quite some time now," said Richard A. White, who served as general manager from 1996 to 2006. "There have been years of starving the system . . . it pains me. If people are serious about bringing the system back to its glory days, there has to be an understanding that it's a long journey and there is no quick fix."

Mortimer Downey, who has been involved with Metro since it opened, says that while the nation's older transit systems in New York, Chicago and elsewhere began making gradual transitions long ago, Metro has had "all of that fall on their shoulders at once."

Metro "needs to get focused on the real challenge of an aging system that needs continual renewal. I am not sure everyone grasps that," said Downey, whom the Obama administration appointed to Metro's board of directors last month as one of the first of four new members to represent the federal government's interest in the system. "It's like painting a bridge. Once you get done, it's time to start painting again."

Metro Board Chairman Peter Benjamin is acutely aware of the link between capital investments and safety and has lobbied hard to protect the capital budget despite the pressure to borrow from it to plug the gaps in the operations budget -- an estimated $40 million in the current budget and $189 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"Safety involves replacing equipment and rehabilitating our facilities," said Benjamin, a former Metro chief financial officer who represents Maryland on the board. "If we don't do that, they become unsafe."

A continuing Washington Post investigation has revealed a history of safety lapses and lack of oversight at the agency. Last year, Metro safety became a focus of at least three hearings on Capitol Hill, and the Obama administration cited Metro as it proposed taking over safety regulation of the nation's subway and light-rail systems. The Government Accountability Office and the Federal Transit Administration began looking into Metro operations, and on Friday, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) requested that a House panel convene another hearing on the troubled agency.

Benjamin acknowledged that Metro also must undergo a fundamental change in its safety culture.

"Safety involves people. You have to establish a culture of safety. . . . so critical mistakes don't get made," Benjamin said. "That requires that our employees must feel valued, respected, cared for and . . . listened to. We need to do a lot more in those areas."

An uncertain time

At a time when Metro needs a significant overhaul, uncertainty grips the organization.

First, no one knows how Metro's massive capital funding needs are going to be met. Metro's operating budget is drawn partly from subsidies from local jurisdictions, fares, and parking and advertising revenue. But a large portion of its capital monies comes from federal funding streams that have recently expired, Metro officials said.

<       2        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company