Members of a D.C. Council committee questioned the top manager of Metro for two hours yesterday, saying they were concerned about the management of the transit agency.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who chairs the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, called for the meeting after reading a series of articles published this month in The Washington Post detailing how Metro mismanaged recent rail car and escalator projects and spends millions on projects not directly related to its core transportation mission.
The newspaper's investigation also found that the agency ignored safety warnings and failed to effectively manage its program to transport the disabled.
"When I was reading the Post articles, I felt sorry for you because of the criticism," Schwartz told Metro chief executive Richard A. White. "But then I thought, they're helping you do your work, alerting you to problem areas. But why should that have to wait for an expose to come out?"
White, who has run Metro for the past nine years, carried a thick binder of talking points as he walked into the hearing room. For each story that was published in The Post, White had a list of actions the agency was taking to correct problems.
"I don't deny we have our challenges," he said. "But I think it's important to say we have taken corrective actions."
The inquiry grew tense when White suggested to D.C. Council Member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) that the top job at Metro offered plenty of stress and little reward.
"What is your salary?" asked Graham, who also represents the District on the Metro board.
"Somewhere over $300,000," said White, who gets $259,000 a year and more than $50,000 for living expenses, in addition to a Metro-issued sport-utility vehicle.
"Wouldn't you consider that a reward?" Graham said.
"I'm the sixth-highest-paid general manager for the fourth-largest transit system in the country," White shot back.
The only member of the public to testify was Dennis Jaffe, who chairs the transportation committee of the Sierra Club. He said Metro's biggest problem is its failure to respond when either the public or people inside the agency raise concerns.
"The issue is changing the culture of the agency," Jaffe said, adding that vigorous external oversight is needed.
Also yesterday, U.S. Rep Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that Metro needs an independent inspector general who can monitor the way it spends money and reports findings to the public.
Metro has an auditor general who answers to White.
The Democrat also said the Metro board should be expanded to include representatives of the federal government and a member who represents passengers.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) has said that he plans to hold congressional hearings next month on management of the public transit system in light of its request for $1.5 billion from Congress.
Metro is in the midst of an unprecedented push for additional money. It persuaded local governments to give it an emergency infusion of $1.8 billion and is seeking the additional funding from Congress. The agency also is campaigning intensely for a long-term source of dedicated funding, such as a regional sales tax, to buy rail cars and buses to accommodate increasing ridership.