Members of Congress lambasted Metro’s board on Friday for “rampant parochialism,” and called for the Federal Transit Administration to enact new safety regulations to improve the quality of their oversight of the rail system.
At the congressional hearing, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) ripped into Metro board Chairman Jack Evans — along with board member Corbett Price, who was not present — for suggesting that Metro should consider shutting down the Silver Line extension in Virginia to save money.
How dare the two D.C. board members advocate such a significant sacrifice from Virginia, while threatening a jurisdictional veto on the proposal to cut late-night service cuts, Connolly and Meadows asked. Connolly said that Evans, and the board in general, were engaging in “political theater” that was simultaneously hurting Metro’s position among lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“Your remarks were calculated to be helpful to us, am I right?” Connolly said sarcastically. “Or were you just playing games?”
Connolly added that he felt the comments were “cheap and reckless, and have huge implications on my side of the river.”
Friday’s morning hearing, held by the House Oversight subcommittees on transportation and government operations, largely featured the same cast from a fiery congressional hearing last April in which members of Congress raked Metro over the coals for ongoing safety issues.
But this time, the focus of lawmakers’ ire and outrage had shifted significantly: They expressed concern with the Metro board’s infighting, consternation with Metro’s past safety problems, and frustration with FTA oversight. But they also expressed relative confidence in General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and in the steps he’s taken in his first year, such as launching the year-long SafeTrack maintenance program and firing a slew of midlevel managers he deemed bad apples.
“One does not have to agree with every major decision he makes to appreciate the fact that thank God he is willing to make them,” Connolly said of Wiedefeld.
Meadows also voiced support for the general manager: “Anything you do to fix a problem is going to be criticized … [but] if you’ll make the tough decisions, we’ll ask the tough questions and hold people accountable.”
Federal lawmakers’ criticisms of the D.C. representatives on the Metro board could put additional pressure on the District and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to accept the proposal passed by the board on Thursday to allow Metro to cut late-night service hours for at least two years. Few members of Congress expressed support for the District’s request to see late-night service hours restored after one year instead of two years. Instead, they suggested that the threat of a veto over a relatively minor issue was a prime example of board members’ parochial tendencies.
“It’s very hard to listen … when you have threatened a jurisdictional veto for any service cuts in the District,” Connolly said.
“You’re making a drastic comment that affects Virginia,” Meadows added, referring to the suggestion to shut down the Silver Line extension.
Evans, much more subdued than in previous appearances on Capitol Hill, accepted that the board demonstrated some parochialism, but said that his and Price’s comments were only intended to help local leaders come to grips with the dire reality of Metro’s financial situation.
Lawmakers also trained their sights on the Federal Transit Administration, questioning the wisdom of the U.S. Transportation Secretary’s decision to hand over oversight responsibilities to a smaller agency with newly-minted regulatory authority, rather than the Federal Railroad Administration and its long-held ability to fine railroad companies for ignoring safety defects.
Meadows and others pointed to the new details released Thursday about the investigation into a July 29 derailment on the Silver Line, and the possibility that Metro inspectors may have been falsifying inspection records. Meadows argued that the FTA should have had more stringent requirements in place to ensure track defects were fixed near East Falls Church station before it resulted in an accident.
The derailment occurred because a section of the steel rails had spread too wide apart, allowing the train to fall off the tracks. That happened because the wooden ties holding the rails in place had deteriorated — a problem that inspectors knew about for months and months, with no one fixing the problem.
In theory, if the FRA had been in charge of safety oversight at the time, federal officials could have demanded that Metro workers go out and fix the tracks or incur a significant fine.
Meadows wondered: Why doesn’t the FTA take steps to beef up its own regulations?
“We have derailments and injuries that are happening on a regular basis while you already have the authority to fix it, and you’re not fixing it,” Meadows said. “How many more people have to die before we get you to act in the appropriate manner?”
FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes defended his agency, pointing out that it would require an act of Congress to turn oversight responsibilities to the FRA, and that Metro’s own safety regulations are already more stringent than the FRA’s.
“If the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was following its standards, the incident should not have occurred,” Welbes said.
But Meadows wasn’t satisfied with that response.
“Who’s fault is it” for the derailment? Meadows asked.
“It’s a systematic fault of all the people involved in the process,” Welbes answered.
“So its partly your fault?” Meadows asked over and over, prompting several increasingly exasperated responses from Welbes. “Are you partially at fault?”
Welbes finally conceded: “Sure, sir,” he said.
After the hearing, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Namrata Kolachalam reiterated that the secretary of transportation handed authority to the FTA because it was the option he felt would result in the quickest action.
“Secretary [Anthony] Foxx needed to move quickly to address WMATA’s safety failures,” Kolachalam said. “If we followed Congressman Connolly’s plan to wait until Congress passed legislation to switch safety oversight agencies we would be putting WMATA riders and workers in further danger. We used the tools that were available to us to act quickly in the face of serious safety problems.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) also honed in on the safety issues that have come to light since the Silver Line derailment near East Falls Church station. In particular, she and Meadows said they were deeply worried about the prospect of workers falsifying inspection reports, and she criticized the union for protecting employees who had committed wrongdoing.
Comstock requested that she have an opportunity to shadow several track inspectors while they walk the tracks to learn more about how they document problems.
She also offered a suggestion: Metro should find a way to allow track workers to use smartphones to document defects and repairs with photos that can be uploaded to an internal database through an app.
Wiedefeld said he is looking into it.