Metro failed to adequately plan the launch of its SafeTrack maintenance program, incurring extra costs and adding to headaches for commuters and local elected officials because of the lack of foresight and preparation, federal auditors said Tuesday.
The report by the Government Accountability Office said inspections conducted by Metro in advance of the project were “not comprehensive and did not collect detailed data on the condition of all track infrastructure,” which prevented the agency from prioritizing critical areas in need of repairs and working more efficiently.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s “planning of SafeTrack did not fully align with leading practices, and WMATA likely experienced some early challenges as a result,” the GAO report said. “Without . . . thorough analysis, planning, and informed decision-making, WMATA’s ability to effectively address future infrastructure challenges may be limited.”
But Metro officials fired back at the criticism, accusing federal regulators — and the agency’s critics in Congress — of playing Monday-morning quarterback without acknowledging the urgent and potentially dangerous repair needs that Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld faced last spring.
“Where were they when this place was going to hell? Where were they?” asked Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans. “Where were people when they should have been doing their oversight?”
“No one — no one — has the right to criticize what Paul and I did,” he added later.
Wiedefeld sent a three-page response to the GAO report, defending the program’s swift implementation.
“Simply put, we did not have the luxury of time to pull together a large project management plan,” Wiedefeld wrote, “as this was not a typical project.”
The GAO’s criticisms aren’t new. Since the launch of the year-long maintenance program last June, officials with the Federal Transit Administration and local leaders have wondered aloud whether Metro rushed into the project.
SafeTrack is aimed at tackling the most dilapidated and potentially dangerous areas of the system’s 117 miles of track. It was prompted by repeated serious safety lapses, including electrical “arcing” incidents and tunnel fires, such as the one that resulted in the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident and caused the death of 61-year-old Carol Glover and injuries to scores of riders.
Wiedefeld first spoke publicly of his plans for an expedited, round-the-clock maintenance program after Metro’s day-long emergency shutdown in mid-March 2016. The first stage of reconstruction launched just over two months later.
But inspection reports from the initial “safety surges” detailed instances in which repairs were performed poorly or incorrectly, deteriorated infrastructure was left untouched, or haphazard planning meant that maintenance crews had to work on the same stretch of track multiple times to complete tasks that could have been completed in one go-round.
The federal auditors said that with better planning, Metro could have identified opportunities to conduct work more efficiently. Metro considered versions of the SafeTrack schedule that would have taken eight, 10 or 22 months to complete — but they didn’t conduct extensive analyses on the costs and benefits of each version.
“As a result, [WMATA’s] decision makers may not have used sufficient information to develop project objectives and to properly prioritize SafeTrack work,” the GAO report said.
The report also said that local jurisdictions were left in a bind by the suddenness of Metro’s decision-making on the project. In one instance, the report said, an unnamed local official told federal auditors that a county was forced to scramble to find an extra $1 million to put recently retired buses back into operation to help shuttle displaced Metro riders — an expense the county had not planned for, though it ultimately expects to be reimbursed by the state.
Federal auditors compared Metro’s approach to those used by other transit agencies for large-scale maintenance projects, such as New York City Transit’s planned 18-month rehabilitation of the L Train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. That intensive project resulted from damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the project is scheduled to start in 2019. It involves extensive “project management plans” developed in close concert between New York City Transit and the Federal Transit Administration.
For SafeTrack, Metro didn’t submit its project management plan until Sept. 30, 2016, after the program had already been underway for about four months. The FTA said it lacked sufficient information on the project’s budget, price tag on the repair work, the risks, and clear metrics to weigh the repair work against. By January, the FTA had yet to approve the plan, though Metro told GAO auditors it was “working closely” with the FTA to improve it.
Asked if the agency continues to believe it took the best course of action, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said Tuesday, “Unequivocally yes.”
“As you’ve heard [Wiedefeld] say many times, he would have started SafeTrack on his first day on the job had he known about the severity of the problem,” Stessel said. “Obviously, under less-emergent conditions, additional time for planning and coordination could have been expended.”
The report also indicated that Metro has not identified how it will pay for at least one-third of the project’s estimated $120 million cost. But Metro has disputed that number in the past, saying that the GAO’s numbers are outdated and that agency officials have in fact determined how they will pay for the complete scope of the project. Metro’s board of directors agreed late last year to add it to the capital improvement plan.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he was encouraged by Metro’s commitment to making improvements but remained “concerned” by some of the findings in the report, which was requested last July by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
“This report confirmed that SafeTrack will not fix all of WMATA’s systemic and organizational deficiencies,” Connolly said.
“There is no question that safety issues have plagued WMATA and that they must be addressed,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has also been part of a push for increased federal funding. “The SafeTrack program was pulled together quickly to address major issues, and we must use this GAO report to improve that work and safety responses moving forward. Part of that work will be to ensure that Metro has the funding necessary to provide a safe and reliable transportation system to the National Capital Region.”
For others, this latest report documenting Metro’s shortcomings only reinforced their view that even when Metro tries to address pressing safety concerns, its efforts are hampered by an inability to ensure that the right work is being done and done correctly.
“Despite my overall support for what the new management is doing to improve safety, I find these continued lapses at WMATA to be frustrating,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “SafeTrack was a drastic but necessary step . . . [but] there should be an expectation that, at a minimum, the disruption be as well managed as possible.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said the GAO report is evidence that “both WMATA and lawmakers need to step it up: WMATA needs to perform better, and policymakers need to pony up funding to prevent Metrorail from accumulating the type of maintenance backlog that resulted in SafeTrack being necessary in the first place.”
The report also included some praise for Metro, pointing out that the agency has discussed and compiled “lessons learned” at the conclusion of each surge to help in the planning of later stages of the project. Auditors said they also approved of the quality control and assurance methods that have been implemented since the launch of SafeTrack.
Additionally, the report detailed accounts from local leaders who said that, despite the sudden start of the disruptive maintenance work, they appreciated the level of communication from Metro during the nine months that the project has operated so far.
“As the SafeTrack project has progressed, WMATA’s efforts to coordinate with local stakeholders have generally been in line with leading practices,” the report said.
SafeTrack is scheduled to conclude in June.
Lori Aratani contributed to this report.