Maryland and Virginia lawmakers expressed deep concern over the news that the Metro system in the nation’s capital would be entirely shut down for at least 24 hours starting at midnight for safety checks.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) called the late Tuesday news — which he learned about from a note passed to him on the House floor — a “gut punch.”
“Safety has to come first, but this must be an extreme situation to justify shutting down the entire system,” he said. “And when you shut down Metro, as my colleagues here are going to learn tomorrow, you essentially shut down the federal government.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who has pressed for years for more funding and better safety oversight at Metro, called the shutdown an “incredible disruption” but one that is justified.
“[S]afety first must be a mandate,” she said in a statement. “I’m frustrated that it has come to this. It is long past time that Metro get to the bottom of ongoing safety concerns. There must be a sense of urgency, certainty and solutions that stick when it’s done.”
“I’m sorry for the passengers and what they are going through,” she continued. “But I would be even more sorry if this action wasn’t taken and something terrible happened.”
Connolly, who is the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee with jurisdiction over D.C. matters, said Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld had been trying to reach him earlier in the day but the two had not connected. He said he would not prejudge the decision to close the system until he learned more about the decision to do so.
“I’m actually stunned at this development,” he said. “It raises so many questions: Was there no alternative? Is this, moving forward how we’re going to deal with major repairs when something happens? What do believe your responsibility is to the region in terms of advance notice?”
The call to close the system was made Tuesday afternoon by Metro’s board of directors following an electrical fire in a tunnel on Monday afternoon. Metro will inspect the system’s cables, as Monday’s fire was caused by the same type of track-based power cables that burned during last year’s fatal Yellow Line smoke incident in another tunnel, the transit agency said.
The Office of Personnel Management, meanwhile, had not yet made an official call about Tuesday for the roughly 2.7 million nonmilitary federal workers in the greater Washington region. A spokesman said the agency was coordinating with the Metro, D.C. and regional governments and transportation agencies to “assess the current situation.”
Congress is in session this week, and the lack of Metro could impact thousands of staffers and lawmakers who need to be on hand to conduct legislative business.
Several lawmakers called on Metro to provide free bus service and for OPM to grant federal workers unscheduled leave or the option to telework.
“The shutdown of the Metrorail system for an entire day in the middle of the work week is an astonishing admission that safety has not been the priority it needs to be at WMATA,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is running for Senate.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) joined the calls for liberal leave or telework. “Clearly, they have to anticipate nightmarish traffic jams,” said Beyer, who represents the suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria.
There was evidence of a divide over whether the shutdown represented a symptom of ongoing problems at Metro (officially the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) or a signal that Metro executives were finally taking the rail system’s safety problems seriously.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on transit, called the shutdown the latest manifestation of a systemic problem at the transit agency. “There needs to be a total cultural change there,” she said.
But Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called the shutdown “the type of tough call that signals WMATA’s new management team is doing whatever it takes to ensure the safety of Metro riders.” And Sen Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he was “glad that Metro’s new leadership is treating system safety with an appropriate sense of urgency.”
Lawmakers from outside Washington took notice, as well. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a noted transit advocate, said he was “deeply concerned” by the shutdown of a system that serves members of Congress, their staffers and the federal government at large.
“It’s a very serious signal,” he said. “We’ve known that there have been problems for a whole host of reasons. … But I am hopeful that everybody in Congress pays attention to that, because we all live here a third of the time. This transit system is the transit system for our employees, for the federal workforce, and it’s in desperate need of everybody’s attention.”
Were his hometown of Portland to shut down its light-rail system on a weekday, he said, “it would have extraordinarily serious consequences.”
“In our community, as here, lots of people rely on buses, but the backbone is the fixed rail system, and when that’s disrupted, it throws everybody for a loop.”
Asked what he would tell his own staff tomorrow, Beyer said he hadn’t given that much thought.
“If they can get here by walking or riding their bike, please come: We’re going to be needing to answer the phone a lot,” he said.
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.