Metro board debates bag inspections

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; B04

Metro's random bag inspections prompted a fiery debate by the transit authority's newly composed board of directors Thursday, with civil liberties advocates squaring off against those who argued that security concerns are paramount.

The vigorous discussion by the board, which has four new members, contrasted sharply with the response of the old board, which mutely accepted the bag checks when Metro announced them in December.

The board, which was holding a customer service committee meeting, did not make any decision on whether the inspection policy should change. The Metro Riders' Advisory Council last month called for a halt to the searches.

Kathy Porter of Maryland and some other board members said Metro should determine what constitutes a reasonable amount of intrusion for customers.

"I'm a little bit leery of our sort of giving the general manager a carte blanche: If it's security related, do whatever you like," said Porter, who joined the board last month.

Tommy Wells, a new member from the District, said the Metro board must ensure it is "applying some sort of a test" as to whether security measures are reasonable for customers who have no choice but to use public transit.

Federal member Mortimer Downey, who was appointed to the board more than a year ago, took the opposite position, saying he supported the bag checks - and stronger measures - because Metro is an attractive target for terrorists.

"I don't want to find myself after an attack . . . in front of a congressional committee or a court [answering], 'Why did you not practice what had been suggested?' " he said. "I don't think we can just pretend there is not a risk."

Metro chief Richard Sarles on Thursday defended his decision to approve the checks. He said that he would try to keep the public informed about security measures but that it might not always be possible.

If there is an urgent security need, Sarles said, "by God I'm going to make that decision, and we are going to do it."

On Thursday, Sarles said his decision was based on several factors, including the recent arrests of two men in connection with bomb threats against Metro; heightened security concerns during the holiday season; and the fact that transit agencies in New York and Boston were conducting the bag checks.

"I wanted to be ahead of the game," Sarles said.

Under the program, Metro Transit Police and Transportation Security Administration officers base their inspections on a random count. When officers pull aside customers for bag inspections, they swab the bags and analyze the swab with an explosives detection device. A customer can refuse the inspection but will then be barred from entering the station or boarding the bus he or she is trying to use, Metro officials have said.

Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn voiced exasperation over criticism of the inspections. He said the bag checks are no more intrusive than what is required to enter local museums or the Metro headquarters building, where the public must pass through a metal detector.

The board also discussed possible service cuts to balance the Metro budget for fiscal 2012, which begins in July.

Metro staff members presented several options, including saving about $5 million by eliminating midnight-to-3 a.m. rail service on Fridays and Saturdays.

Metro acting Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek said ending the late-night weekend rail service would also free the equivalent of 40 to 45 days a year for track work aimed at improving safety and upgrading the rail system. "From a scheduling perspective, it would really help us out," he said.

The board discussed curtailing service during talks to close last year's budget deficit - the possibility arises frequently when the agency faces shortfalls - but rejected the idea. Metro enacted the most expansive fare increase in its history last summer.

In a separate report to the board, on Metro's escalator outage problem, Kubicek called Metro's failure to carry out preventive maintenance on schedule 60 percent of the time "totally unacceptable."

"This is definitely not trending in the right direction," he said of data showing that Metro's escalators are malfunctioning significantly more often than in the past. He said Metro was short about 20 escalator technicians and had three to five openings for supervisors.

Tom Downs, a new board member from the District, said Metro should admit to the public that "we did a lot of stupid things" about escalators and "we bought some junk."

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