At a House subcommittee hearing, members praised Metro for the positive changes but said the agency needed to improve customer service and strengthen its ethics code after a scandal involving former Metro board chairman Jack Evans.
“We have got to focus on that as something that is key to revitalizing and optimizing the comeback we are seeing,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations. “. . . There are a lot of hopeful signs, not the least because management is paying attention, but there’s a long ways to go in the area of customer service. Connolly has proposed legislation that would provide Metro with an additional $150 million a year in federal funding.
Tuesday’s hearing before the subcommittee was the latest in a continuation of ongoing, periodic reports the House has required from Metro after a series of high-profile incidents, including the 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, which resulted in the death of a passenger.
Connolly praised Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for leading the transit authority out of a period that included the unprecedented federal takeover of safety oversight for the rail system, and he noted the year-long SafeTrack maintenance program, a more than $110 million maintenance overhaul that included temporary station and line-segment shutdowns.
“Some of these initiatives have not been popular,” Connolly said, “but these improvements coincide with increases in on-time performance, customer service ratings and ridership — trends we must strive to continue.”
House members’ issues remain, however, citing a train crash this month that remains under investigation.
The crash probe is the first major test of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the new independent oversight agency.
But among House members’ chief concerns was how Metro leaders were addressing the fallout from the handling of the ethics scandal involving Evans. Connolly dubbed Metro’s ethics code “a walking billboard for the ethically challenged.”
Evans, a D.C. Council member (D-Ward 2), resigned from the Metro board in June after the panel’s ethics committee found he committed a violation by failing to disclose private consulting work for Colonial Parking. Colonial, the District’s largest parking company, was paying Evans’s consulting firm $50,000 a year.
The investigation into Evans began in January 2018, just as the transit authority launched its Rush Hour Promise money-back guarantee program to win back riders and rebuild trust after SafeTrack. The probe, undertaken by the board’s Ethics Committee, was conducted in secret and its findings were not made public until The Washington Post published leaked findings of the investigation and elected leaders in Maryland and Virginia pressured the board to make the information public.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Paul C. Smedberg, a former Alexandria City Council member who replaced Evans as Metro board chairman, told House members that the panel has revised its ethics code, clarifying disclosure requirements for board members. New guidelines also require board members to discuss ethics investigations or allegations in public and make written reports of findings and decisions accessible.
The code also requires board members under investigation to recuse themselves from any official discussions or decisions related to their own case. Connolly, however, said the policy should go further.
“I guess I want to be reassured that, God forbid, that if it be the chairman of the board, for the sake of the organization, that chairman steps aside, pending the adjudication of the issue,” he told Smedberg. “I highly commend that to you. . . . And it’s just essential that the person we’re dealing with be above reproach.”
Smedberg said: “We would be open to exploring that option in a broader context.”
The House panel also heard from David L. Mayer, chief executive of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, which was created last year to oversee Metro after more than three years of federal oversight.
After the fatal L’Enfant Plaza incident, Metro’s record of chronic safety problems and lax oversight led then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to order the Federal Transit Administration to conduct on-the-ground inspections and safety audits. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission replaces the previous regional oversight body, which was largely viewed as ineffective and powerless.
Connolly and others did not question the work of the new safety commission, which continues to investigate the Oct. 7 low-speed collision of two empty trains after service hours. But during questioning, Connolly stressed how clear the commission and Metro need to be when responding to safety questions, adding that such clarity and openness could help bring back riders.
“Let me say, Dr. Mayer, in a system that’s trying to recover ridership and that has lost a lot of ridership because of a loss in confidence in safety number one, reliability number two, I just think I would commend you in speaking a little more forthrightly and directly,” Connolly said.
Said Mayer: “We share your value of transparency and we will be transparent.”