Metro’s recent safety problems have lawmakers and local leaders concerned that they will not be able to successfully lobby Congress and state legislatures for the additional funding that the transit system so desperately seeks.
In the past five weeks — just as Metro has emphasized safety and taken drastic steps to warn employees about negligence — the problems have been stark and steady: red-light violations, derailments, a botched evacuation, a report about years of degraded track conditions, a transit police officer accused of attempting to aid the Islamic State.
For Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), that has been disheartening.
“At this point, you have to just shake your head, because every day it’s something,” Connolly said Friday. “It’s very difficult in this environment to make that case and not have it fall on deaf ears.”
For months, local lawmakers have tried to make the case that Metro has finally turned a corner and that the day-long emergency shutdown of the rail system in March signaled a new dedication to safety.
Metro’s recent record, however, has stubbornly resisted that narrative. Heading into budget talks in the fall, the summer’s embarrassments do not make for an optimal negotiating position.
“This cannot happen anymore,” said Jack Evans, chairman of Metro’s board of directors. “It makes it really hard for me, when I’m out going to talk to members of Congress and senators and business leaders, trying to get more money to Metro, and these idiotic things happen.”
In coming weeks, lawmakers are also looking to suss out answers. Evans wants an emergency meeting of the Metro board — tentatively scheduled for Aug. 25 — to discuss a recent derailment near the East Falls Church station and other safety violations that have occurred in recent weeks. (The board typically takes a month-long break from meetings at the end of the summer.)
Evans’s swift action was sparked by a report released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board that concluded that the derailment occurred because the space between the tracks had spread too wide and that 30 feet of track had crossties that were damaged and ineffective.
NTSB investigators also said Metro officials may have known about problems with the tracks in that area since 2009, that they conduct track inspections much less often than agency guidelines require and that the specialized vehicle they use to detect track problems has been out of commission.
Evans, who also represents Ward 2 as a Democratic member of the D.C. Council, says he wants answers: Why were inspections on the tracks conducted once a month rather than twice a week as required? Why did supervisors not tackle work on the tracks? How long was the detection vehicle in need of repairs? And why was there not a backup vehicle?
“These continuous events occur on a daily basis,” Evans said. “They are all really outrageous. We have to get this stuff under control.”
Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are calling for a briefing from General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld by Thursday on Metro Transit Police officer Nicholas Young, who was arrested and accused of attempting to provide support to the Islamic State. Metro officials apparently were aware for years that Young was a source of concern.
“These reports raise serious questions about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s process for conducting background checks for MTPD officers, what public safety and information security safeguards were in place during the investigation and monitoring of Young, and what continuing public safety protections are being implemented,” the legislators wrote in a letter to Wiedefeld.
And with Wiedefeld’s frequent appearances before local leaders and members of Congress, there is a looming question: When will the general manager’s grace period come to an end?
His measured approach, even-keeled demeanor and no-nonsense answers have won him some fans in Congress. At a hearing in May, the famously acerbic Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) elicited some chuckles and raised eyebrows when he gave Wiedefeld a “certificate of appreciation” for firing 20 Metro managers.
“This is a certificate of appreciation. I’ll probably make these into gold, into silver and bronze. You’re going to get the silver, because you actually responded . . . and took action and fired people,” Mica joked at the time.
But Wiedefeld has now been on the job for more than eight months, and at some point, Metro’s failings — infrequent inspections, a lack of safety culture — may begin to reflect on his management.
“I don’t know if it’s still the honeymoon period or not,” Connolly said. “But while there is great frustration with the daily negative stories, there is a sense that Wiedefeld is trying to turn this around, and he more or less has the confidence of my colleagues on the Hill.”
But, Connolly acknowledged, “at some point, patience wears thin, and he’s going to become a convenient target. I hope that doesn’t happen. He needs our support and not our kvetching.”
But even as Metro and the Federal Transit Administration have come under more scrutiny of late with the transit system’s very public safety lapses, there is one bright spot: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx says that he has been heartened by the recent work done in Metro’s jurisdictions to get ready for the establishment of a regional Metro safety oversight body.
“I am encouraged to see that the jurisdictions share the U.S. Department of Transportation’s commitment to the safety of the WMATA Metrorail system and have taken steps collectively over the past several months to establish a new [state safety oversight authority],” Foxx wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
Foxx said recent developments have made him more confident that the oversight body will come together in the next six months. Specifically, he praised the fact that Bowser has formally submitted legislation to the D.C. Council with the intention of getting a vote in the fall and that the three jurisdictions are working together on building a framework for the new safety agency.
“This effort also is essential to ensuring that the jurisdictions are able to stand up and maintain a fully functioning SSOA as soon as practicable after the legislation is enacted by all three jurisdictions,” he wrote.
Still, Foxx said he is keeping the Feb. 9 deadline that he established early this year.
“The progress that the three jurisdictions have made to date clearly demonstrates that you are capable of meeting the deadline with continued focus,” Foxx said.