The wait for safe, efficient Metro has been too long

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 13, 2010; 9:32 PM

The eye-opening revelation about Metro's escalators in a new consultant's report is that the machines keep breaking simply because the transit system has failed to do routine maintenance.

Brake pads that weren't replaced. Dirty electrical circuits. Oil leaks.

Forget about raising fares or reorganizing the board of directors. Metro should just call Jiffy Lube.

If the cause of the difficulties might seem mundane, however, it points to a broader and all-too-familiar worry at Metro: poor management. The system's bureaucratic culture often doesn't yield elementary competence.

For instance, the report by a Pennsylvania-based firm pointed pretty clearly to mid-level supervisors, the ones who directly oversee escalator and elevator mechanics, as principal culprits. They are not ensuring that the system meets its own standards for keeping the equipment tuned.

"The necessity for well-qualified, experienced supervision cannot be overstated," the report by Vertical Transportation Excellence said. "Obvious signs of conditions requiring immediate maintenance . . . are being overlooked."

Ironically, the report noted that some good supervisors have returned to being rank-and-file mechanics because the pay is better.

Both supervisors and mechanics have base income of about $80,000 a year. But the mechanics are paid for overtime and have better benefits and holidays under the union contract, which together can translate into an extra $10,000 a year.

That suggests senior management should have intervened to solve the problem. When asked about it, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said a typical solution would be to hire more mechanics, so there'd be less overtime and it'd be less attractive to be demoted.

Of course, the escalators' problems are hardly new. The Post was running front-page stories 10 years ago looking at how frequently they broke. At the time, Metro was responding with a $120 million program to address the issue over five years.

We're still waiting.

Metro director Mort Downey, one of the board's newest yet most experienced members, expressed frustration that Metro has allowed the escalator problems to endure for so long.

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