D.C. area Metro agency presents safety priorities

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Metro's interim general manager, responding to federal concerns about safety and oversight, has written a top 10 list of safety priorities for the transit agency.

Richard Sarles announced the list during testimony Wednesday at a Senate transportation subcommittee hearing led by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who echoed calls for Metro to address safety lapses that have been reported since the June 22 crash on the Red Line that killed nine people.

"We're now 11 months from that tragic crash, and we need a sense of urgency," Mikulski told Sarles and Peter Benjamin, chairman of the transit agency's board of directors. "I remain just as worried about the safety of Metro riders and workers as I was last June. . . . I want specifics."

Sarles, who just finished his first month on the job, acknowledged troubles in the system, and he said "we have learned" from a incident this month in which a Red Line train operator hit the emergency brake behind a train leaving the Wheaton station. The braking train came to a stop and no one was injured, but Metro was slow to report the incident to the panel that oversees safety.

The first priority on Sarles' top 10 is buying new rail cars to replace the system's aging 1000 Series cars, a purchase the Metro board is expected to take up next week, officials said.

Sarles has announced other steps in recent weeks to address concerns raised by lawmakers and the Federal Transit Administration. In a March audit, the FTA called Metro's safety department dysfunctional.

The changes include more safety training for workers, filling key safety jobs, improving protections for track workers and setting up a system to catalogue safety-related incidents and how the agency responded.

"It's a way to keep the focus on safety as our number-one priority," Sarles said of the list, which is being distributed to managers and rank-and-file workers.

Benjamin said, "It's important that the board know these 10 priorities."

Wednesday's hearing came as Metro seeks, for a second year, $150 million in federal funding to help the aging system meet long-delayed capital needs. Congress has passed legislation authorizing $1.5 billion in federal funds over 10 years; the District, Maryland and Virginia agreed to provide the same amount in matching funds.

Mikulski said she does not intend to hold up the money but that she will hold Metro accountable for reporting to her committee not only on progress made but also on how the improvements are measured.

"For the $150 million, what are we going to get?" she asked Sarles, who said he is setting deadlines for his top managers.

"If we say we're going to deliver a track-worker protection program by a certain date, we will," he said.

Besides capital needs to address safety and maintain the system, Metro faces a $189 million shortfall in its operating budget. Much of the gap comes from soaring increases in the cost of MetroAccess, the agency's subsidized transportation system for disabled and elderly riders.

Mikulski hinted at the possibility of a federal subsidy.

"It's an area where the federal government created a mandate," she said. "There needs to be a way [for Congress] to consider" paying some of the program's cost. Mikulski said she understood the needs of the disabled, noting that she broke her ankle in three places in a recent fall.

Benjamin said: "The cost increases are overwhelming our ability to protect services for everyone else. I would encourage Congress to look at that."

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