No GM can fix Metro alone

By Jackie L. Jeter
Sunday, March 28, 2010

Newly appointed interim Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, praised for his safety record as chief of the New Jersey Transit system, inherits the huge financial and management woes that defined the tenure of outgoing GM John Catoe.

But transforming Metro's beleaguered system, struggling from management turmoil and a string of deadly accidents, is too daunting a task for any general manager to tackle, no matter who stepped into Catoe's shoes. The challenges confronting Metro rest first and foremost with the Metro board.

The National Transportation Safety Board's recent three-day hearings reaffirmed two things that Metro workers already knew -- last June's deadly Red Line crash was an accident waiting to happen, and something like it will happen again unless the Metro board makes safety more than a slogan.

In short, Metro needs a major structural adjustment. Without a real commitment to oversight, operational transparency, dedicated funding and institutional accountability, our transit system will remain perilous.

We can begin with a restructuring of the Metro board itself. As it is currently composed, members are largely driven by the interests of the jurisdictions they are appointed to represent, and they fail to provide the kind of leadership that will benefit the system as a whole. Board appointments should be based on expertise in overseeing operations and management of the nation's second-busiest transit system, not on loyalty to the person who made the appointment.

Then there is the system itself. Recently, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced that it would spend about $813,000 to install software on 182 older rail cars that would keep them from rolling backward and another $2.6 million to repair door control units on about half of the fleet. While these upgrades are important, they do not address the most critical changes needed to make our trains safe. More essential are fundamental adjustments to how Metro operates, including making a priority of routine preventive maintenance and inspections of the aging system. Also needed is new investment in training programs for workers to lay the groundwork for a new generation of operators. (Supplying the workforce with functioning communications equipment would help, too.)

All of which raises the major impediment to Metro's navigating this crisis: the woeful underfunding that denies the system needed upgrades and infrastructure support. Failing to win increased and dedicated federal appropriations, WMATA's response has been to rely on management tactics to "do more with less." This incomprehensible concept places workers, riders and the system at risk.

The result is that Metro is trapped in a dangerous cycle that has resulted in 17 deaths since 2005, including five Metrorail employees killed on duty. The system's failings cannot be handled as isolated issues addressed through ad hoc actions; such a staggering increase in accidents demands a more comprehensive response. Metro's workers -- those who operate the trains and buses, repair the tracks and make the system work -- stand ready to carry out the changes necessary to restore passenger confidence and increase ridership to sustain the system now and into the future. Is Metro's leadership also equal to the challenge?

The writer is president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, representing D.C. area transit workers.

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