Congress is calling for Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to put more pressure on the transit agency’s unions to concede to internal cost-cutting measures as the agency stares down a looming budget shortfall.
Lawmakers weighed in on the role of unions in the cost-cutting efforts at a House Oversight subcommittee hearing Wednesday, where they peppered Wiedefeld with questions about the agency’s finances and opportunities for privatization and winnowing down overtime pay.
Despite fare hikes and service cuts approved earlier this month — in addition to 500 jobs cut last year and 300 layoffs expected this year — Wiedefeld has said that he expects Metro will fall far short of a balanced budget in 2019 without an influx of new money. He is planning to release a report next month on how much the agency would need to stay financially solvent into the future, as well as lay out his reasoning for creating a special tax or other revenue source to fund Metro.
But some members of Congress accused union leaders of fighting internal cost-saving measures that could help make the case that Metro deserves new funding.
“In what ways are the unions providing a speed bump for actually getting [Metro’s] fiscal house in order?” asked Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the subcommittee.
Despite Meadows’s role as chairman of the fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus, he said Wednesday he might be interested in “potentially spending political capital in ways that I wouldn’t normally” to help the agency remain financially healthy in the future.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m going way out on a limb and not having a willing partner,” he said.
Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the subcommittee, aired his concerns about the ongoing dispute between Metro and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 over Metro’s fatigue management plan, which bars some staff from working seven days in a row for safety reasons.
The union successfully squashed those requirements through binding arbitration. But Metro filed a lawsuit this month to challenge that decision. The agency now pays some workers to stay home on that seventh day, because it says it is unsafe to let them work.
Metro workers can earn double overtime working the seventh day.
“So you pay the person not to work?” Hice asked, sounding incredulous.
“Yes, sir,” Wiedefeld responded.
“And then you have to pay someone else to work?” Hice asked.
“All right,” Hice said. “That, to me, helps explain some budgetary problems.”
A spokesman for ATU Local 689 declined to comment on the hearing. The union is expected to put out a detailed report Thursday outlining its own proposal on how Metro can balance its budget, but members have argued that service cuts and layoffs will further drive down transit ridership and imperil Metro’s future. Daily ridership is down about 100,000 from 2009 peaks.
After the hearing, Wiedefeld said he continues to work on finding common ground with union officials, even though ATU Local 689 President Jackie L. Jeter said last week that the union’s relationship with Metro is worse now than it has been in years.
“I don’t view it that way. I don’t view it as combative at all,” Wiedefeld said. “But I’m trying to solve some issues, and I need them to come along with me on some of these things.”
The hearing came two weeks after the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report assessing Metro’s SafeTrack reconstruction program and accusing the agency of moving too swiftly on the maintenance project and failing to properly plan to minimize costs and maximize efficiency.
In turn, Metro officials had accused federal regulators of Monday morning quarterbacking and failing to take into account the urgency of Metro’s safety issues.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) came to Metro’s defense, saying that advanced planning for SafeTrack would only have been possible “in a perfect world.”
“The situation they inherited was sufficiently dire that they couldn’t exactly do that perfectly,” Connolly said. “We didn’t have another six months, because public safety was at risk.”
But Mark L. Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, argued that those safety issues aren’t an excuse.
“But I also think,” Goldstein continued, “it’s not prudent or appropriate to embark on a major capital project, spending up to $130 million, without a plan.”