Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White took responsibility yesterday for a string of management and personnel problems, saying he and other transit officials had made decisions that "don't make much sense" or have "misfired badly."
White's admission came at the start of a prepared statement in which he also disclosed that Metro is investigating whether the contractor for its paratransit service inflated performance numbers to cash in on more than $3 million in incentives.
"It shouldn't be news to any of you that we've taken our share of lumps during the past year," White said at the news conference. "Much of the criticism directed at this organization, the [Metro] management team and, frankly, at me personally, has been deserved. We've done some things that, to this day, still don't make much sense to many people. Either we've misfired badly or we've done a totally inadequate job of providing the entire context or rationale for what we've done."
White promised that the agency would take "additional measures" to improve bus and rail service and customer relations, although agency officials and board members said that specific measures have not been mapped out.
Metro has struggled to convince the region's leaders and the system's customers that it needs a major investment of money to improve service.
Without a significant increase in federal, state and local money, White said in April, the train and bus system will enter a "death spiral" of declining service and lost ridership.
An anti-tax group in Fairfax County has launched a television ad campaign against a transportation bond issue on Tuesday's county ballot, arguing that most of the money would go to a "mismanaged Metro system."
In the past three months, worker error caused a flood at a station when sprinkler alarms were ignored, a Metro police officer arrested a pregnant woman for talking loudly on a cell phone, a station manager screamed at a pregnant woman and pushed her husband after they asked about a stopped escalator, and a cracked rail stalled rush-hour trains.
Metro board managers said they have encouraged White to publicly take more responsibility.
"Frankly, what we're seeing now is Dick getting his arms around the situation, not only here but across the board," said T. Dana Kauffman, who represents Fairfax County on the Metro board.
Board Chairman Robert J. Smith said that "over the last several months, there has been this cascade of events that have kind of left us feeling like we're a vehicle stuck in the mud. I think Dick recognizes that and recognizes that ultimately he's the top guy and . . . he feels like his management of personnel is at issue."
In February, Metro acknowledged that an internal audit estimated the transit agency might be losing $1 million a year in parking revenue because of poor monitoring of cashiers. That situation led to internal changes that helped propel the paratransit service investigation, officials said.
Metro signed a six-year, $90 million contract with Atlanta-based LogistiCare in 2000 to provide service for disabled people who cannot ride the subway or a conventional bus.
Two years into the contract, both parties were unhappy: LogistiCare said it was losing millions of dollars, and Metro complained about bad service. So the two sides agreed to attach incentives amounting to $110,000 a month to performance standards. Targets have been reached in 28 of the 30 months since, transit officials said.
Customers have long complained about late pickups and poor service. A federal review found fault with the way the firm scheduled rides. In March, a dozen disabled residents filed a lawsuit against the agency.
Metro officials said they became concerned about the growing number of complaints from customers, which didn't jibe with performance reports from LogistiCare.
They said that preliminary results of an internal audit suggest that LogistiCare might have inflated its performance and that they will seek a new contractor by the middle of next year. They also said they will rework the contract so that pay is not based on trips made.
LogistiCare Chief Executive John Shermyen said his company would cooperate and that "we're not telling people to tell drivers to change numbers."
A Metro employee has been placed on paid administrative leave, and two LogistiCare employees have been removed from their positions.
"This largely confirms exactly what we have been saying, and it's high time that Metro stood up and took full responsibility," said Marc Fiedler, chairman of the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the agency.
Metro had 972,000 paratransit trips in fiscal 2003 at a cost of $34.4 million, officials said.
"There must be some accountability," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who represents the District on the Metro board. We need to know "how long this went on. Why didn't we know about it sooner? We're going to have a real housecleaning here, rest assured."