Board members have started on some of initiatives, including the creation of a police review panel that would examine internal affairs investigations at Metro Transit Police. The panel, composed of four civilians and three members of outside law enforcement agencies, will review cases quarterly and send reports to the board and transit police chief with recommendations for changes in training or policies.
Metro posted applications last week for people to apply to serve on the panel. Board members will select the applicants, and they hope to have a panel in place sometime in the fall.
Metro also is working to bring more diversity to its advisory boards, recruit more minority-owned businesses to apply for contracts and put staffers through more cultural training. Board members said they, too, will undergo training on race and transit equity.
“We are committed to advancing equitable policies and practices that support our mission,” Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said bus service is an area where policies can make the biggest difference in improving equity. Repeated Metro studies have shown that African Americans are the largest group of Metrobus customers, many of whom work in the service industry.
“One important lesson of the pandemic this year is that essential workers ride the bus,” Wiedefeld said. “Since the pandemic began, only 18 percent of rail customers continued to ride under stay-at-home orders, while nearly half of the Metrobus customers kept riding, 70 percent for work trips.
“Of those, 49 percent identified in our survey as African American, 16 percent as Latino and 10 percent as Asian,” Wiedefeld said. “Rather than continue to make small adjustments to decade-old bus routes, should we identify neighborhoods that are underserved and restructure routes? To what extent should we ensure bus service directly links underserved communities to job centers, even if such service may not be as productive as other services?”
Wiedefeld said that in the past, decisions were made with the idea of trying to keep costs down or the same for lower-income riders, whereas Metro should be thinking, he said, about how to make riding easier and more affordable for that segment of ridership.
“Today, major service and fare changes are evaluated using, to be frank, a ‘do no harm’ standard to ensure that minorities and low-income riders do not suffer disproportionate, adverse impact,” he said. “How can we create an affirmative standard while delivering more and better service to those communities?”
Board member Michael Goldman suggested halving or waiving Metrobus fares for low-income riders, with those who qualify for Medicaid being eligible.
“I would suggest the cutoff there would be the federal Medicaid standard, which now [the District, Maryland and Virginia] will soon be certificating individuals as meeting that standard,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland. “And we could easily then have the jurisdictions certify those below the federal Medicaid standard and then issue them identification cards that would essentially allow them to ride Metrobus, perhaps Metrorail, for free, further meeting our need for transit equity.
“This is not so strange a step for us, since we already provide fairly steeply reduced fares for senior citizens and for a number of the educational institutions, both college as well as through the D.C. Program for the D.C. public schools,” Goldman said.
Goldman was referring to a program in which Metro, through the District, provides nearly 60,000 unlimited SmarTrip cards to students who live in the city. Seniors pay half-price fares.
The idea of free or reduced fares has been gaining momentum. Last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) launched a pilot aimed at studying the impact that free and reduced transit fares would have on low-income city residents.
About a month before the coronavirus pandemic hit the region, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) proposed giving all D.C. residents a $100 monthly credit for public transportation paid for by extra property tax revenue.
Goldman asked Wiedefeld and Metro staffers to research his proposals, and Wiedefeld said he would pull information from Bowser’s pilot program, which is underway.
Board member David Horner noted that he expected bus ridership to remain down for a long period because of the pandemic. But he said he endorsed “a variation” of Goldman’s proposal, where cities and counties served by Metro could pay fares for riders who begin trips in their jurisdictions.
Horner, who represents the federal government on Metro’s board, said now is the time to study Metro’s subsidies in light of depressed ridership, to see whether resources should be redirected toward Metrobus, where the transit agency is seeing the most demand.
Board member Matthew F. Letourneau, who also is a Loudoun County supervisor, said any fare change discussions needed to include elected officials in Metro’s service area.
“Obviously, we have seen the incredible need that we have for bus service for parts of the population that don’t have other options, and so [I’m] interested in that discussion,” said Letourneau (R-Dulles). “Metro is funded by the jurisdictions as well as the state and a few other sources. So these are reasonable discussions that would have to happen with a lot of different folks.”
Board members also heard an update on the investigation into Tuesday morning’s derailment of a Red Line train outside the Silver Spring station. The derailment shut down a portion of the line for most of the day. Thirty-two people were aboard the eight-car train, which derailed just as it was leaving the Silver Spring station headed to Glenmont.
A preliminary investigation found that the train operator proceeded through a red signal. The first car of the train entered a center storage track, known as a “pocket track,” while the second car appears to have continued moving in the direction of Glenmont, according to a preliminary report from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission. The pocket track was already occupied by an out-of-service train. The front set of wheels on the second car derailed, the commission said.
No one was injured, and it is not clear at this point why the operator drove through the red signal.
Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato said no anomalies or malfunctions have been found with equipment or communications, pointing to “human factors” as the likely cause of Tuesday’s incident.
“Both the actions of the Metro operator and the response from the Rail Operators Control Center are under review in a human factors investigation,” she said.
Goldman said Metro is lucky there were just a few riders on the train.
“Metro caught a big break here,” Goldman said. “While there are no casualties resulting from this accident, it’s largely a result of the fact that we’re in the midst of the covid pandemic, and there were only 32 passengers and one operator aboard a train, which theoretically may have had [far] more passengers if we were in normal times under normal operating conditions.
“I think we should take this accident quite seriously and try to get to the bottom of it, because under more normal circumstances, this could have been a very, very serious [with] greater risk for injury of riders,” he added.
Letourneau noted that the train would not have proceeded through the red signal if it had been in automatic train operation mode — an autopilot system Metro used from its opening until the June 2009 Red Line crash at Fort Totten that killed eight people and injured 80. Although the system wasn’t found to have caused the crash, train operation was turned over to human control after that, and it is unclear whether ATO will return.
“Is it our intent to get back to that at some point?” Letourneau asked. “I haven’t heard anything really about it in a long time.”
A low-speed crash of an out-of-service Metro train into a stationary train in October was determined to have been caused by human error. An investigation concluded that the operator, who has been fired, moved his train even though a systemwide stop command was in place.
“Human factors seem to be a major contributor,” Letourneau said. “And it’s concerning that we continue to have these despite what I know is a renewed focus by management on safety issues.”
Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader said that bringing back automatic train operation is being studied alongside other systems, including new signal equipment, that might help to reduce human mistakes and mishaps. Board members asked their staff to bring back information, including the feasibility of resurrecting an autopilot system, as soon as possible.