Top Metro officials and members of Congress squared off at a contentious hearing Wednesday on the beleaguered transit agency’s myriad problems, with the Metro board’s chairman shouting that the federal government is shortchanging the agency and a House member lambasting Metro as a “screwed-up mess.”
The board chairman, Jack Evans, who has long argued that the federal government should contribute money to the transit system’s operating budget, pounded the witness table at the House hearing to make his point.
“All I’m asking you for is $300 million, which is your fair share, given the fact that we transport 50 percent of your workforce every day,” Evans shouted, meaning that he wants Congress to approve an annual contribution to Metro’s $1.7 billion operating budget roughly equal to what the District, Maryland and Virginia kick in.
“You want there to be safety? You want this to be reliable? Or do you just want to leave here and do nothing?” Evans said.
Raising the specter of another safety-related subway calamity, he declared: “Next time something happens, I’m blaming you guys, because we need your help.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) agreed with Evans, saying that while the region pays Metro’s day-to-day expenses, everyone else gets a “free ride.”
But Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) wanted to hear none of it, calling Metro “the most screwed-up mess I’ve ever seen in business or government.” Although the federal government does not contribute to Metro’s operating budget, it does chip in money for capital improvement. And much of that money has gone unspent.
“I’m not here to make up for bad management,” Mica declared. “I’m not here to make up for a poor safety record. I’m not here to make up for a lack of action.”
“I’m not going to bail you out,” he said, adding: “You sure as heck aren’t going to get it out of my folks,” apparently meaning federal taxpayers in his home state of Florida.
Addressing Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, Mica said, “You need to get in there and fire people and get that place in order.”
Wiedefeld, Evans and others appeared at the joint hearing of the House Oversight subcommittees on government operations and on transportation and public assets. Wiedefeld told the House members that he was committed to finding solutions for the problems plaguing the nation’s second-busiest subway system.
Wiedefeld, on the job for just over four months, said that in the “very near future” he will present a comprehensive plan for addressing the transit agency’s problems and restoring rider confidence.
Earlier in the day, Wiedefeld met with the region’s Senate delegation in a gathering that was described as cordial but pointed. He emphasized that he has no plan for extended shutdowns of the system but said his plan will “involve difficult choices.”
“I am not talking about a six-month shutdown,” Wiedefeld assured the delegation, but he could not rule out shutdowns that would be disruptive.
He said his plan could involve shutting segments of track and adding buses to plug the holes. He also is considering temporary reductions in service during off-peak hours at night and on weekends, he said.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) scheduled the session, with fellow Maryland Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin and Virginia’s two Democratic senators, Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, after Wiedefeld last month ordered a 24-hour emergency safety-related shutdown of Metrorail, an unprecedented step in the subway’s 40-year history.
Wiedefeld then headed to the joint hearing, where he faced congressional scrutiny into his agency’s troubled finances, repeated safety breakdowns and chronic service woes.
He and Evans were joined by Christopher A. Hart, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Carolyn Flowers, a senior official of the Federal Transit Administration.
This was the third time Metro officials have appeared before the House members, but it was Wiedefeld’s first time before the panel.
The lawmakers were generally sympathetic to him, in light of his short tenure; he took charge in late November. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) made a point of urging her colleagues and Metro officials to tone down the rhetoric and focus on Wiedefeld’s proposals for improving the transit agency.
“There will be time later for some of the food fights,” she said.
She praised Wiedefeld’s suggestions that he would reduce back-office staff and consider outsourcing some of Metro’s paratransit services.
Evans drew much rougher treatment, especially from the two subcommittee chairs, Mica and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
Addressing Evans’s call for the federal government to contribute to Metro’s operating costs, Meadows said, “I’ve got the numbers. If you’re talking about increasing the operating revenue the way you’re talking about, you’d become the most expensive operating system, more expensive than Chicago, more expensive than New York, more expensive than Pennsylvania. . . . What would justify that?“
Evans responded that Metro was the second-largest transit system in the country.
Mica mocked Evans’s pleas of empty pockets, saying that as recently as two weeks ago, Metro was sitting on $783 million in unspent funds. He asked why Metro didn’t use that money for repairs that Evans said were urgent.
Later in the hearing, however, in response to a question from Connolly, Wiedefeld clarified that much of the money is already committed to buy new buses and rail cars. He also said Metro spent its money at about the same rate as comparable transit systems.
The subcommittees called the hearing largely because of safety concerns.
“Several recent high-profile accidents and incidents on Metrorail — including two fatal accidents — have been attributed, at least in part, to long-standing and systemic safety deficiencies,” they said in a statement announcing the hearing.
The deadly calamities were a Jan. 12, 2015, incident in which a stalled train was enveloped by smoke in a Metro tunnel and a 2009 crash that killed a Metro train operator and eight riders. The smoke incident, which led to the death of one passenger, was caused by an electrical malfunction near the L’Enfant Plaza station. The 2009 crash, near the Fort Totten station, resulted from a failure of computerized track circuits.
In prepared remarks, the FTA’s Flowers said that since assuming temporary responsibility for the safety of Metro’s rail system last year, officials have conducted 107 inspections focused on a variety of operations including tracks, traction power and its rail operation control center, which manages trains as they move through the system.
As part of that work, inspectors have found 229 defects, including issues with track gauge (the distance between rails) in two areas of track between the Huntington and Metro Center stations. Wide gauge is significant because it can cause derailments.