Congressional representatives from the Washington region said yesterday that they will fight for an infusion of federal money for Metro but that the transit system needs better management and accountability.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who chaired a hearing on Metro yesterday before the House Committee on Government Reform, said new, independent oversight is key to correcting problems inside Metro.
"The [existing] oversight is not very good," Davis said. "We need professionals in there really doing oversight, so we don't have the same old people saying, 'We're going to get it right,' for the fifth time."
Davis called the hearing after a series of articles was published last month in The Washington Post that detailed how Metro mismanaged nearly $1 billion in recent rail car and escalator contracts. The newspaper's investigation also found that the agency ignored safety warnings and failed to effectively manage its program to transport the disabled.
Concerns about management at Metro come as the transit system faces severe financial shortfalls. Davis filed a bill yesterday that asks Congress to provide $1.5 billion to keep trains, tracks, stations and buses in good repair and relieve the crowding that threatens to overwhelm the transit system. Metro would have to make management changes, and the region would have to come up with a steady source of revenue for the system.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said Metro's chief executive, Richard A. White, needs to hold managers accountable. "Sometimes, there comes a time when you have to fire people," Cummings said.
White said a half-dozen senior managers have been asked to leave their jobs or to take an early retirement since The Post began its inquiries late last year. "I pledge to you, sir, that we're going to be much more accountable than we have in the past," he told Cummings.
"In some cases we have a checkered record in how quickly we respond to safety recommendations," White told the committee. "We're not proud to say we were slow to respond or that management was kind of ignoring recommendations, and that's not acceptable."
White said he has redesigned the way Metro handles safety concerns. "If someone is not acting appropriately or quickly, there will be intervention and consequences for that manager," he said.
Cummings asked about MetroAccess, the curb-to-curb service for the disabled that the Post series found was riddled with service problems and mismanagement.
White said he was trying to improve the service. "We have a whole new way we're going to try to deliver that service," he said, adding that Metro is working with disabled people to design a new contract for MetroAccess. Metro is being sued by disabled riders who claim the quality of MetroAccess is so poor that it violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Critics of Metro said yesterday's hearing was too easygoing. "It was milquetoast," said Ken Reid, an organizer of LOWER, a group that is fighting the extension of rail to Dulles. He said Metro should be forced to operate with greater cost efficiency and more accountability and transparency, regardless of additional federal funding.
Davis's bill says Metro can have the funds only if it hires an inspector general, who would track the way the agency is managed and spends its money, investigate employee reports of wrongdoing and publicly report the findings. In addition, Metro would have to add two seats to its board of directors for representatives of the federal government.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) insisted that any federal representative to the Metro board be a regular Metro rider, an idea that Davis supported. Of Metro's 12 board members, just one is a daily passenger.
The bill also stipulates that federal money would flow only if the Washington region creates a dedicated source of money for Metro, such as a portion of a sales tax. Davis stressed that he is not suggesting the creation of a tax. "It could be part of an existing tax," he said.
Congress is taking a role in changing Metro's structure because the transit system was created by the federal government. But the three changes proposed in the bill -- dedicated funding, two additional seats on the 12-member board of directors and the creation of an inspector general -- would also have to be approved by state legislatures in Virginia and Maryland as well as the D.C. Council.
Metro, which turns 30 next year, is approaching a point when many components of the subway must be refurbished or replaced. At the same time, subway ridership is surging -- the average weekday rail ridership in June was 734,582, the highest in Metro history.
Metro is the only major transit system in the country without a dedicated source of funding. It must ask for operating subsidies each year from 10 governments in the Washington area. "It's like passing the hat to keep the Washington Monument open," said T. Dana Kauffman, a Fairfax supervisor who chairs the Metro board.
The extra money could not be used to pay Metro's escalating operating costs. For that, Davis said, the region has to set aside a stream of money.
Transit advocates were pleased by the Davis bill.
"The carrot and stick is genius," said Dennis Jaffe of the Sierra Club, referring to the requirement that the region approve dedicated funds for Metro before it could access the federal money. "He issued a challenge to public transportation advocates and elected officials to step up to the plate and take responsibility to do what's right and necessary."
Davis said he plans additional hearings in the fall to examine how Metro handles safety issues and its management of MetroAccess. The Post investigation found that Metro managers often ignored safety warnings regarding track conditions, resulting in a spate of derailments in the past two years.