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Metro rushed critical planning for SafeTrack project, federal auditors say

Federal regulators have criticized some of the work conducted during the beginning stages of SafeTrack. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A new report by the Government Accountability Office says that Metro failed to adequately plan in advance of its SafeTrack maintenance project — a concern that also has been raised by lawmakers and federal regulators in recent months.

Read the GAO report

In the report, federal auditors said that inspections conducted in advance of the project were “not comprehensive and did not collect detailed data on the condition of all track infrastructure.” With better planning, GAO officials said, Metro could have identified opportunities to conduct work more efficiently, reduce disruptions for riders and local jurisdictions, or saved money.

“As a result, [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s] decision makers may not have used sufficient information to develop project objectives and to properly prioritize SafeTrack work,” the GAO report said.

Federal reports reveal concerns with quality of Metro’s SafeTrack repairs

Metro General Manager Paul J. 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 in the March 3 letter, “as this was not a typical project.”

Asked if the agency’s continues to believe it took the best course of action, 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.”

Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said he had “no regrets” about the course of action taken in the run-up to SafeTrack.

He likened it to trying to fix a burning plane while it was still in the air (a Metro spokesman went a similar route, saying it was like rushing someone to the ER during a heart attack).

“We are not in a situation where we have time to do thorough planning,” Evans said. “That’s what everybody should have been doing before Paul and I got there.”

The report also indicates that Metro has not identified how it will pay for at least one-third of the budget for SafeTrack work — $40 million of the budget for the project — but Metro has disputed that number in the past, saying that the GAO’s numbers are outdated, and that agency officials have determined how they will pay for the complete scope of the project. Metro’s board of directors agreed to add it to the capital improvement plan late last year.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he was “concerned” by some of the findings in the report, which was requested last July by the House Committee on Oversight.

“This report confirmed that SafeTrack will not fix all of WMATA’s systemic and organizational deficiencies,” Connolly said, “but I welcome the GAO’s assessment that SafeTrack demonstrates that WMATA is ‘committed to preventative maintenance, including the repairing of track assets before they break and cause more cost and safety impacts on Metrorail riders.'”

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.

“WMATA developed a new organization-wide quality control and assurance framework and is implementing it for the first time through SafeTrack,” GAO wrote.

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