Regional plan seeks tougher oversight of Metro

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010; B01

The organization that oversees Metro safety will gain more authority and eventually be replaced under a plan disclosed Tuesday by top regional leaders, who say they are concerned about the lack of accountability and recent series of accidents at the transit agency.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and District Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) agreed during a meeting on a two-phase action plan that would first require more stringent, regular reporting by the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a regional oversight body that has been criticized as weak.

In the long term, and with congressional approval, the leaders said the committee would be replaced either with direct federal safety oversight of Metro by the Federal Transit Administration, which would require the implementation of minimum federal safety standards as proposed in House and Senate legislation supported by the Obama administration, or with a locally and federally funded Metro Safety Commission set up by the jurisdictions.

"The current overall structure and the current approach to safety is not acceptable," said McDonnell, who cited a "pattern" of "significant accidents" and fatalities, including the Red Line crash last summer in which nine people were killed.

"We need more direct executive oversight of [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] because of these safety issues, rather than less," McDonnell said during a news conference held by the three leaders after their private meeting. Describing riders' "frustration" with Metro, Fenty said he and the two governors will play a more "hands-on" role in improving Metro and plan to meet soon with the agency's new interim general manager, Richard Sarles, who started the job March 29.

The push for tougher accountability of Metro came on the eve of a congressional hearing scheduled for Wednesday morning that will also probe Metro's safety practices, its yawning budget gap -- including a $189 million shortfall in the $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 -- as well as its need for effective long-term leadership.

Sarles, the former head of New Jersey Transit, will appear before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in his first congressional testimony as Metro's temporary chief.

The oversight of Metro has for the past 13 years fallen to the Tri-State Oversight Committee, an obscure and relatively powerless body that has no direct regulatory authority over safety and cannot order Metro to make changes. It has no employees of its own, and its staff is drawn from local governments, hindering their independence because they must seek permission to act from their respective governments. The committee does not have a dedicated office, phone or Web site.

"The TOC is weak and confusing," said Metro board member Mortimer Downey, who was appointed in January by the Obama administration. The goal, he said, is to give the committee structure, "which it clearly does not have at this point."

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley agreed. "The TOC . . . doesn't really have a lot of authority," she said. "They haven't actually been housed in one place; they did not have regular meetings."

The new oversight plan, outlined in an 11-page white paper issued Tuesday, will require the committee chairman to be a full-time staff member and extend his term from one year to two or three. The chairman will be given greater authority and be "empowered to make executive decisions for the TOC and address immediate real-time safety issues at Metro and approve correspondences and corrective actions," said Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Committee Chairman Matthew Bassett said that previous chairmen have been hampered by having to gather a quorum of members to send letters or approve an accident investigation report. "This will allow the chair more administrative latitude in performing those tasks in coordination with the other TOC members but more quickly," he said, adding that he expects the changes to his job to take effect "in short order."

The plan will also create a six-person Policy Committee made up of the three local transportation secretaries and three alternates to which the Tri-State committee will report monthly on the status of accident investigations and corrective actions as well as "outstanding safety issues."

The Tri-State committee will be required to provide monthly briefings to Metro's board, general manager and safety committee. It will also be required to brief the Federal Transit Administration on safety issues and deficiencies at Metro, the status of investigations and the implementation of corrective actions.

The committee members will include Swaim-Staley, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton and Gabe Klein, the District's transportation director, with alternate members Harold Bartlett, Maryland DOT deputy secretary; Scott Kubly, DDOT associate director; and Thelma Drake, Virginia's director of rail and public transportation.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said Metro "welcomes strengthened independent safety oversight" as well as regular meetings with the governors and Fenty. Metro Board Chairman Peter Benjamin said the board supports "having an organization that is independent and can help ensure the safety of Metro."

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