Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has appointed a veteran legal insider with strong personal ties to the Obama administration to serve as his special adviser focused exclusively on fixing the Washington region’s troubled Metro system.
Kathryn Thomson, who was expected to leave her job as the Department of Transportation’s top lawyer, instead will stay on as Foxx’s special adviser on Metro oversight, The Washington Post has learned. She will begin her duties this week.
“The timing was such that, while Katie Thomson was stepping down from the general counsel position, she still wanted to serve,” Foxx said. “Getting the [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] turned around is critical to public safety and we are so fortunate that Katie has agreed to assist our efforts for a few months.”
In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for Foxx said Thomson will be in the job through September and will focus on steering Metro “on a path toward a strong safety culture and the local jurisdictions toward accepting their safety oversight responsibilities.”
Such a job is not unheard of in the secretary’s office. Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, created a similar position after the ethics and financial scandals that hit the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority in 2012.
“We welcome this special advisor and continue to work closely with USDOT and the [Federal Transit Administration] on safety improvements,” Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye said in an email.
Foxx’s office noted that Thomson will work with the District, Maryland and Virginia to create a new state safety oversight agency to replace Metro’s previous safety monitor, the Tri-State Oversight Committee. Thomson also will coordinate with the three new federal appointees to the Metro board, who are slated to begin their terms next month.
The creation of a new safety office to oversee Metro has been an area of contention between the secretary and elected leaders in the three jurisdictions. In July, Foxx met privately with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and pushed them to move quickly to set up a new oversight agency.
In February, frustrated by the lack of progress, Foxx threatened to withhold millions in federal funding unless a new agency was created. The leaders reached an agreement in March, but it is not clear whether the new safety agency will be in place quickly enough to prevent the loss of federal transportation dollars.
Thomson’s appointment is yet another sign that Foxx is determined to show that the FTA’s oversight of Metrorail is more than just window dressing. FTA’s oversight efforts have drawn from various agencies within the department including the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Acting FTA Administrator Carolyn Flowers is expected to testify Tuesday on Capitol Hill on issues related to Metro safety. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld also is expected to appear at the hearing.
Foxx’s decision to give FTA temporary responsibility for safety oversight of the nation’s second-busiest subway system last year drew criticism in some quarters, including from the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB, which has conducted 13 investigations of Metro since the system opened 40 years ago, had urged Foxx to place safety oversight of the subway under the railroad administration.
But while Thomson does have extensive ties to the Department of Transportation, her biography on the agency’s website does not cite specific experience related to rail systems.
Thomson joined Transportation in 2009 and worked as LaHood’s principal adviser on energy, climate and environmental matters. She led the department’s efforts to develop new fuel and greenhouse gas emission standards for cars, trucks and heavy-duty vehicles. She became chief counsel for the FAA in 2012 before becoming general counsel at Transportation in April 2014.
Asked about Thomson’s lack of experience with rail, officials pointed to her extensive experience with regulation and oversight of various modes of transportation in the department.
Before joining the Obama administration, Thomson worked for 19 years at Sidley Austin, the same Chicago law firm where the president and first lady Michelle Obama met. Thomson’s husband, Chris Lu, a former law school classmate of the president, is deputy secretary of labor.