Top Metro officials faced aggressive questioning Tuesday as members of two House subcommittees chastised the beleaguered transit authority for its numerous operational, infrastructure and financial management problems.
The agency has been under intense scrutiny since the Jan. 12 smoke incident in a subway tunnel, which killed one Yellow Line passenger and sickened scores of others.
“We are facing a perfect storm of problems,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said, referring to the “aging Metro system, a panoply of maintenance issues that impact rider safety and confidence, weak financial management over internal controls and lack of a dedicated source of funding.”
The two subcommittees — one on transportation and public assets, the other on government operations — heard from Jack Requa, the interim general manager, who said the transit agency’s protracted search for a permanent chief executive has finally begun to accelerate.
Richard Sarles, the former general manager, announced his retirement in September and left Metro in January. Disagreements among members of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s board of directors have slowed the search for a replacement.
Some members have want a traditional, nuts-and-bolts transit executive who is grounded in engineering; others have said that WMATA, saddled with money woes, needs a financial-turnaround specialist at the helm.
“The scope of the search will include candidates with extensive financial management experience and will not require that the candidates have government or transit industry experience,” Requa told the House panels’ members in written testimony. “The process is expected to be completed with a final selection this fall.”
An incredulous Connolly asked Requa whether his answer meant the dispute has been settled — that the board prefers a financial specialist over a conventional transit executive. Requa said that was a question for the board, not him.
Given Metro’s many infrastructure and service problems, Connolly said, “the idea that we wouldn’t put operations as central to the general manager boggles the mind.”
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the public assets subcommittee, angrily pressed Requa on the general manager issue and on the agency’s management problems overall. “I’m fed up with this mess,” Mica said, who threatened to seek congressional support for a move to privatize the management of WMATA.
“There are companies that can operate transit systems,” Mica warned.
He also chastised Metro for not arriving at a contract with a cellular provider to offer clear cellphone coverage in the subway system. “I want an agreement,” he told Requa, who said that Metro has long been trying to negotiate one. “I’m telling you, it’s not that complicated,” Mica said. If a contract is not in place “when I get back here in September,” after the congressional recess, he said, “I guarantee you: The fur is going to fly.”
In the Jan. 12 smoke incident, Virginia-bound Yellow Line train No. 302 stopped in a tunnel just south of the L’Enfant Plaza station after encountering heavy smoke caused by track-based electrical components that malfunctioned.
As noxious fumes filled the six cars, the train remained stationary in the dark tunnel while scores of passengers, gasping for air, waited more than 30 minutes for rescuers to arrive and begin leading them to safety on foot.
One of the riders, Carol I. Glover, 61, a resident of Alexandria, later died of respiratory failure due to smoke inhalation, an autopsy showed.
Documents made public by federal investigators last month identified the train operator as James Curley, and that name has been used in news accounts. However, Requa said Tuesday that the operator’s name is Curley James.
James was invited by House members to appear at Tuesday’s hearing, but he declined. James has submitted to a long, detailed interview by federal investigators and believes that he has nothing more to add, according to Requa. James was not subpoenaed by the subcommittees.
Since the January calamity, numerous problems have been revealed involving Metro’s subway infrastructure and rail operations. At the same time, serious financial woes in the transit authority have come to light, including a cash-flow squeeze that has forced the agency to rely heavily on short-term borrowing.
As a result, Metro in recent months has been the focus of inquiries and reviews by several outside agencies, such as the Federal Transit Administration and the Government Accountability Office, as well as by Congress.
T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, also appeared before the subcommittees Tuesday. In her written testimony, she offered no significant new details about the NTSB’s investigation of the smoke incident. The board has said it will issue its final report early next year.
Recounting what the NTSB learned about Metro last month in two days of public hearings, Dinh-Zarr cited inefficiencies in the management structure of WMATA.
“Organizational units can become insular, which is often referred to as a ‘silo effect,’ ” she told the subcommittees. “Many interviews with WMATA employees that were involved in the January 12th accident indicated that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, demonstrating a concerning silo effect.”
Like Requa and Dinh-Zarr, WMATA Inspector General Helen Lew and the agency’s chief financial officer, Dennis Anosike, who also testified Tuesday, provided no significant new insights into the smoke incident or Metro’s broader shortcomings.
“In the past 12 months, we have worked to revamp and reform the way we manage Metro’s finances,” Anosike said. “I would like to add that, for us, fiscal responsibility and accurate, timely financial reporting is a priority.”
A 2014 audit by the FTA found that Metro had been mismanaging federal grant funds for years, spending money in violation of federal rules and keeping shoddy records.
Until Metro rectifies the litany of grants-management failures identified by the audit, the FTA has said it will continue tightly limiting Metro’s access to grant money. The restrictions, which are likely to remain in place at least into next year, have largely caused Metro’s cash-flow trouble and forced it to juggle short-term loans.
“In response to the FTA’s findings, WMATA committed to 65 corrective action-plan items,” Anosike told the subcommittees. “However, more work remains to be done at WMATA, including completion of our FY2014 financial statements.”
Because its records are so muddled, the agency has been unable to publish a financial report for the fiscal year ending June 2014. Another fiscal year ended last month, meaning that the agency is in danger of falling two years behind in issuing financial statements. Without such statements, Metro’s cost of borrowing money goes up.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) implored Anosike and Requa to work urgently with the FTA to satisfy the federal agency’s concerns so the grant restrictions can be lifted, easing Metro’s cash crunch.
“I’m not among the members sitting up here who want to beat WMATA about the head,” she said. But she warned that if Metro tries to impose fare increases in 2016 to deal with its money woes, the public response will not be pleasant.
She shook her head. “You want to see people who are going to be mad?”