Safety, budget woes threaten to consume Metro

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A01

Washington's Metro system, once a national model for urban transit systems, has deteriorated so badly that the National Transportation Safety Board plans to use a hearing this week into the June 22 crash that killed nine people and injured 80 as a case study for the adequacy of state and federal oversight at subways across the country.

The most sobering manifestation of Metro's decline is a series of fatal accidents over the past seven months. Since the crash on the Red Line, four workers have been killed on the tracks and a subcontractor was electrocuted while working at a bus garage.

Metro, which opened in 1976, has earned an embarrassing distinction.

"No one can recall another time when the NTSB has had four open investigations involving a single transit system," NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said. "When we see numerous accidents in a relatively short period of time, we want to determine what, if any, common elements there are that may need to be addressed."

The NTSB isn't expected to issue a formal finding as to the cause of the June crash -- officials say it will be months before they do that -- but when it does, a new general manager will be responsible for implementing the recommendations and helping Metro's board of directors find the money to pay for any equipment changes that are needed; changing the agency's safety culture; reversing a recent decline in ridership; and erasing historic budget deficits. General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. plans to retire April 2, and officials expect the search for a replacement to last most of the year.

During the three-day hearing, Metro's top managers and engineers, including Catoe, and the members of the committee responsible for overseeing safety at the agency will deliver sworn testimony about the accident and Metro's operations. Officials from other transportation agencies will testify about their operations, and the NTSB will release a mountain of documents.

All of the uncertainty makes people who ride Metro increasingly jittery about using the system.

Whitney Distaso of Arlington County worries when her husband heads out the door for his Metrorail commute. She panicked Feb. 12 when a train with more than 340 passengers aboard ended up on the wrong track and was derailed by safety equipment to prevent a possible collision.

"For about 10 minutes I couldn't reach him," she said. "All this fear just happened."

A problem in culture

Delays, overcrowding and chronically broken escalators are daily realities for commuters who use the nation's second-busiest rail system. Metro is reeling from a safety crisis, a lack of money and the loss of talent. The lack of funding, however, pervades everything.

A quarter of Metro's fleet of about 1,300 rail cars have been in operation for more than three decades -- and another quarter more than 20 years old. Long stretches of track in the 106-mile system need repair, part of a massive $11 billion list of capital upgrades required over the next decade.

Yet even as the system has aged, the number of rail trips has grown from about 150 million taken per year in the 1990s to nearly 223 million last year, according to Metro data.

"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.

"The exact amounts of all those things are uncertain," said Sarah A. Kline, director of Metro's Office of Policy and Government Relations and a former counsel to the Senate Banking Committee who has expertise in the transit industry.

"How much you will get from federal transit formulas is not certain, and it's not certain we will get $150 million a year in federal dedicated funding, and we are in discussions with [local] jurisdictions for the next six-year program" to fund capital needs, she said.

The six-year Metro Matters program through which local jurisdictions in Virginia, Maryland and the District invest in Metro's renewal ends in June, and the federal legislation that provides 80 percent of Metro's capital funding, the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act, expired in September. Both must be renegotiated.

Although Congress last year authorized $1.5 billion over the next 10 years for Metro -- funds that are to be matched by the local jurisdictions -- Kline points out that there is no guarantee lawmakers will appropriate the funds annually.

"It's called dedicated funding, but it's not guaranteed to arrive every year," Kline said.

Metro's leadership is also in disarray. Catoe announced his retirement last month, Benjamin only recently became chairman and the board expanded to accommodate the first two of four new federal members whose roles are not clearly defined.

The leadership vacuum extends from the executive level into the ranks of middle managers and technical experts, said David Gunn, general manager of Metro from March 1991 to March 1994 who was recently asked to provide a sweeping assessment of Metro's problems. In December, Metro announced that four top managers would be leaving or be reassigned, including Catoe's top deputy and safety officer.

Officials say the fundamental message for customers is: Get used to fare increases, service cuts and perpetual repairs -- and the inevitable delays and inconveniences they will cause.

"We need to ask customers to understand we are not that new system anymore," Benjamin said.

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