Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and the region’s top elected officials met behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss the future of Metro and what it will take to right a transit system reeling from significant safety and financial problems and a lack of permanent leadership.
Emerging from the hour-long session, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) characterized the meeting as “productive” but declined to offer more than generalities about the discussion.
“We all came together to say we’ve got some problems, we have to address them,” Hogan said. “We know that we’ve got to move forward. We’re all frustrated they haven’t had an executive director for 10 months. We’re all concerned about the safety issues and the financial issues.”
A spokeswoman for Foxx said the meeting was an opportunity to discuss the importance of ensuring that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system is safe for its customers and employees.
Foxx’s meeting with the leaders underscores mounting concerns about Metro’s future. The transit agency’s finances were already under scrutiny following a Federal Transit Administration oversight review in early 2014. Then, in January, a fatal smoke incident on the Yellow Line killed one passenger and sickened scores of others. The ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board has revealed troubling gaps in a system that undertook an aggressive safety program after a 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people.
And last month, an FTA inspection report detailed significant flaws in Metro’s safety management system, particularly in its central train control center tasked with ensuring the safety of thousands of passengers moving through the nation’s second-busiest rail system each day.
“It is critical that WMATA immediately address required actions from FTA’s Safety Management Inspection and hire a permanent general manager to address WMATA’s urgent safety and financial management issues,” said Suzi Emmerling, a spokeswoman for Foxx. “At the same time, regional leadership must move as quickly as possible to stand up a new State Safety Oversight Agency, which will provide an even greater level of oversight for WMATA. Secretary Foxx is committed to ensuring that we all work together to chart a path for a stronger, safer and more accountable WMATA.”
Unlike his predecessors, Foxx has oversight authority over Metro and similar systems across the country given to the department after the 2009 crash on Metro’s Red Line. The Safety Management inspection released in June is one example of those new federal powers and how they are being used to identify safety gaps in subway systems nationwide.
The FTA’s unprecedented examination of Metro’s rail and bus operations, for example, found that employees lacked adequate safety training and that maintenance of the system appears to have suffered as officials pushed to increase service and maintain schedules. Metro has 30 days to file a formal response to the June report.
A week later, as part of its investigation into the Jan. 12 smoke incident, the NTSB held two days of public hearings that underscored the need for restructuring at the transit authority. A final NTSB report on what caused the incident isn’t expected until early next year, but already investigators have found several problems that may have contributed to the calamity. Investigators, for example, have determined that train control center operators botched the remote operation of ventilation fans, exacerbating the plight of passengers who were stuck on the smoke-filled train.
Additional reviews from the Government Accountability Office and a review by a team from the American Public Transit Association are expected later this summer.
Foxx and other officials say the transit agency’s ability to respond aggressively to the myriad issues it faces has been hampered by the lack of permanent leadership. Richard Sarles retired in January, and the authority has been under interim leadership since.
In March, the effort to name a successor to Sarles was halted amid disagreement between board members over the type of leader the agency needs, with some members favoring a chief executive with financial expertise and others wanting someone with a more traditional transit background. Late last week, board chairman Mortimer L. Downey signaled those differences may have been resolved and announced the board was resuming its search and hoped to name a new general manager by fall.
On Tuesday, Bowser, McAuliffe and Hogan sought to assure the public that they, too, have found common ground.
“We are on the same page to make sure our system is the best it can be,” Bowser said
McAuliffe added: “Making sure we have the safest system running is of critical importance to all of us. We are all in agreement we need to move forward to get our general manager in there as soon as possible.”