Metro outlines new safety measures after FTA audit

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010

Metro will spend at least $7 million on a series of new safety measures outlined Friday in response to a scathing audit in March by the Federal Transit Administration that called the agency's safety office dysfunctional.

Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles, called the FTA findings "serious" in a letter issued Friday responding to the audit, and he pledged both immediate and longer-term steps to correct problems by September.

One top priority, Sarles said, is to bolster Metro's safety department staff by filling six of 12 vacancies in the next two months, after the hiring this month of James M. Dougherty as chief safety officer. Sarles said safety officers have been assigned to each bus and rail division to improve communications between them and frontline employees.

Metro also is updating its whistleblower-protection policy and encouraging employees to report safety concerns anonymously through a hotline and an e-mail address. Sarles said he also plans to hold regular meetings with superintendents to raise accountability. Sarles noted that a recent report by former Metro general manager David L. Gunn criticized a "shoot the messenger" culture at Metro, and said, "I am taking steps to end that perception."

Metro was given a May 4 deadline to respond to 10 safety recommendations made by the FTA that focus on understaffing, lack of expertise and poor communication at Metro's safety department, as well as a failure to identify and handle dangerous conditions before they cause accidents.

FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff testified about the audit this month on Capitol Hill, highlighting Metro's "completely marginalized safety department" in summarizing 21 recommendations made March 4 to Metro and the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which oversees safety at Metro.

Rogoff also said that Metro was responsible for "grotesque" violations of safety for track workers. He noted that eight Metro employees have been killed on the job since 2005 and called that "an inexcusable record."

Responding to the problems of track-worker safety, Sarles said in the letter that "protection of these workers must be robust and effective." He said Metro has created a cross-departmental group focused on the problem and plans to complete a new manual on track-worker protection by October.

Metro has a backlog of 85 "corrective action plans" that were generated by earlier safety audits and investigations. Sarles said implementing those is a "top priority," but he did not give a timeline for when they would be completed.

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