How seriously will Metro act on NTSB recommendations?

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, August 1, 2010; C02

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

The release of the National Transportation Safety Board report [on Metro's Red Line crash] should present no radically new information. Metro's problems are documented thoroughly and can be attested to by anyone who uses the system regularly.

What troubles me the most is what I heard on local TV and radio news: that only one Metro board member attended the hearing, and even then, that person did not stay for the entire presentation. Are they trying to avoid being in the spotlight or answering tough questions? Granted, they probably heard the details of the report beforehand, but as a group that has responsibility for the system, I would have expected them to be present.

This points out the need for fundamental changes in how Metro is managed. The Metro board is essentially a political entity. As evidenced with funding issues, when push comes to shove, board members look at their constituencies ahead of the system as a whole. Perhaps it's time to eliminate the board altogether and replace it with a professional management system -- some kind of privately run operation or a government-private partnership that can manage the system like a business, set goals and expectations, manage performance, and so on.

I don't know what the answer is, but increasingly, I am less impressed by the Metro board and wonder if it is the most effective body to take the system in the fresh, new direction that is desperately needed.

-- Tim Ralston, Kensington

There's a story about a reporter asking a relief pitcher if it worried him to come into a close game with runners already on base. "Heck, no," the pitcher replied. "I didn't put 'em there."

Let this Metro board take responsibility for the mess that developed on its watch. These board members are at least as likely to make progress as a new crowd of overseers. Besides handing the Metro board its collective head last week, the NTSB handed over a long list of complicated recommendations to improve safety.

Being right there to receive the list wasn't critical. Metro Board Chairman Peter Benjamin was unavoidably out of the country. Vice Chairman Catherine Hudgins, a Fairfax County supervisor, was there but also had to attend a county board meeting. Interim General Manager Richard Sarles was there, too.

What's really going to count is how seriously the board takes the shellacking it got and what it does about it. If you start hearing what sounds like, "We're already doing that stuff," then we're in real trouble. If you hear them say, "We're putting safety first," then we're only so-so -- they've been saying that for years.

Some board members should do some soul-searching about whether they're really up for the struggle to reform the political and bureaucratic structure of the transit authority. But there are plenty of board members with the knowledge and commitment to tackle this.

Will they?

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

My question will unfortunately come across as sarcastic, but it is not meant that way. I do not know any way to sugarcoat it.

Has there been any determination of what services we can expect to decline with Metro's next fare increase [Sunday]? I realize that they always say that there will be no service decreases, but they haven't missed a decrease on any of their past fare increases.

The last fare increase [in June] was preceded by many assurances that there was to be no decrease in service. Yet since that time, I've been offloaded six times (Orange Line). One of those was at Clarendon so our train could go back and pick up more riders, although exactly where the current folks were to go was unclear. Getting a seat on a train isn't going to happen unless you ride the other way to the end of the line.

If Metro could give us some warning of what is to be cut, that might help to alleviate some of the hostility that always seems to arise after every fare increase.

-- Don Desrosiers,

Falls Church

Ralston wondered whether the board was afraid to answer tough questions. I think the board needs to focus on asking tougher questions of the transit staff not only about safety, but also about rail car crowding, escalator malfunctions and air-conditioner breakdowns -- the everyday experiences of Desrosiers and thousands of others.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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