IT’S HARD to fault any Metrorail passenger for cynicism about the latest promises of improvement.
In June, the Federal Transit Administration issued a withering 116-page report detailing top-to-bottom organizational and operational lapses at Metro, particularly in the subway system, and outlined 91 steps the agency needed to take to fix them. Most of the steps involved enhancing safety-management procedures.
On Thursday the FTA signed off on Metro’s response — a 643-page doorstop of an action plan laying out how the agency plans to address each and every one of the feds’ concerns. The plan, said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, presents Metro with an opportunity to “make lasting changes and restore public confidence in the system.”
Yet it doesn’t take an elephant’s powers of memory to recall that Metro failed to fully implement some of the recommended and promised fixes following the Red Line accident that killed nine people in 2009. And with no clear timetable or budget to carry out this latest remedial agenda — and no permanent general manager in place a year after the last one’s resignation — what reason is there for confidence that Metro will do better this time?
Even as the page-count of plans to cure Metro mounts, so do the system’s problems.
At a meeting of Metro’s board of directors Friday, the frustration of some members at the backlog in track maintenance was so acute that one of them, Corbett Price, suggested that an unspecified number of Metrorail stations simply be closed to devote more time to critical safety repairs. Mr. Price has a point: Rather than endlessly rescheduling planned maintenance work, as it does now, Metro needs to reduce its backlog, now running on three years.
The trouble is that any such initiative, which would entail more service disruptions and inconvenience for commuters, could try the passengers’ patience to the breaking point.
It’s the latest symptom of the system’s unraveling in the face of chronic underfinancing, mismanagement and growing obsolescence — a state of affairs so alarming that a faction of Metro’s board members is now pushing for the agency to hire not only a new permanent general manager, but a restructuring czar to reform and rebuild Metro from the ground up.
How or whether that would work — a czar enthroned alongside not only a general manager but also a big-league consultant, which Metro already is seeking to overhaul operations — is anyone’s guess. And there appears to be no consensus on the board to go that route, despite the best efforts of the District’s representatives on Metro’s board.
But with serious cash-flow problems in the short term, and pension and capital shortfalls over the next decade pegged at up to $25 billion, there’s little question that Metro needs dramatic change. So far, despite the mishaps, the accidents and the reams of paper they generate, Metro conveys no real sense of urgency. The agency has proven itself adept at making plans, but much less so at carrying them out. Maybe it will take a czar to give Metro a jolt of resolve.