Frustrated by safety problems that have persisted for years, U.S. senators from Maryland and Virginia are pushing to shake up the leadership of the Metrorail system and set new standards for emergency procedures.
An amendment to the Senate transportation bill was introduced Tuesday, the latest attempt by public officials to address a deep well of financial and safety problems at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
It follows a meeting this month with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that was attended by District Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
On Tuesday, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) proposed an amendment that would require extensive new safety standards addressing — among other things — evacuation plans, ventilation systems, radio networks, train controls and worker screening. Although directed at Metrorail, the standards would apply to the nation’s other subway systems as well.
The amendment also would move responsibility for appointing four Metro board members from the General Services Administration to the Transportation Department.
A scathing report by the Federal Transit Administration found flaws throughout the system, including outdated and unrepaired ventilators and radios that often do not work in tunnels. The control center is understaffed and controllers are not trained as required, the report said. Power cables had not been replaced.
A similarly harsh assessment was delivered five years ago, after the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine riders.
The Red Line accident prompted lawmakers to give the FTA power to set safety standards. But the only standard the agency was required to set was the one deemed most necessary at that point, for car-design crashworthiness. And even that policy has yet to be finalized by the agency.
“I will not rest until Metro produces safety results,” Mikulski said in a statement. As part of the bill funding the Transportation Department, she also made stronger federal oversight a requirement before Metro can spend $150 million in federal funds.
Regional lawmakers have asked for an update on the prevalence of flawed power cables like those involved in January’s fatal incident. A Metro official responded earlier this month that priority areas are being inspected for defects and cables are being replaced if necessary but that it will take “540 days of work” to complete the examination.
Lawmakers say they want to see a “change agent” chosen as the new chief executive of Metro, which has been without a permanent leader since January.
“At this point, it’s obvious that the only way to turn Metro around is to start at the top,” Warner said in a statement. “The system desperately needs strong leadership on the board.”
Board Chairman Mortimer L. Downey, a federal appointee, said he has been working closely with the Transportation Department. He denied that the board was hopelessly gridlocked over the executive search, which fell apart in February and was restarted this month.
“There’s a general agreement that, yes, there needs to be change,” Downey said.