Metro was struggling alongside other transit agencies last fall, each subsisting on federal dollars during a pandemic that siphoned off passengers and fare revenue. As others rebound, Metro finds itself in a hole that has only deepened.
The troubles raise a recurring question that commuters and regional leaders ask each time the agency finds itself in a similar predicament: Who’s accountable?
That question resurfaced in recent days, when D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) cited a “management problem” at a transit agency seeking to recover from its biggest crisis since 2015. As the Metro struggles to lure back riders whose confidence in the system is shaken, future service cuts are likely if passengers don’t return.
At Metro, the buck stops with eight board members and five alternates appointed by the heads of jurisdictions they represent, with D.C., Maryland, Virginia and the federal government appointing two voting and two alternate members. (Three alternate positions are currently unfilled).
Metro’s governance structure has dogged the transit agency for years, with myriad studies recommending changes to make members more accountable.
The board’s setup was intended to give ownership to jurisdictions served by Metro, but the result, according to elected officials and former board members, are political appointees who lack the clout of leaders at other transit agencies led by elected officials. Under those arrangements, political fates can be tied to the transit system, potentially rising and falling with the public bus or rail system.
With most transportation systems, it is clear who is responsible, said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) recently touted a pandemic-era high for subway ridership. But it was also Hochul, who oversees the agency that runs the subway, and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who oversees the police who patrol it, who fielded questions about transit safety last month after a gunman shot several people on a Brooklyn train.
“There is really not an agency that operates in an environment as complex as Metro,” Puentes said. “That’s not an excuse, but it’s something that the region struggles with.”
Metro’s leadership has wrestled for years with rail safety issues, which have multiplied in recent months. The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, an oversight agency that Congress created in 2017, said in a safety order on May 17 that the agency’s culture allows for “procedural shortcutting,” adding that “without cultural change, no amount of training will be sufficient.”
The new order limits how the agency energizes and de-energizes the rail system’s track power, citing multiple occurrences of Metro not following safety procedures that ensure no one is on the track when power is flipped on. After reprimands, Metro had created a “power desk” in its control center, staffed by a controller and supervisor, whose jobs were to make sure guidelines are followed. Instead, the commission said, they operated using their own procedures.
A week ago, the agency announced it failed to test and train half of its train operators as part of recertification the agency requires every two years. The lapse occurred despite multiple oversight agencies citing Metro for not providing regular refresher training going back to at least 2015.
That failure drew widespread criticism and led to the resignations of Chief Operating Officer Joseph Leader and General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld. Wiedefeld had planned to retire June 30 after six years with Metro. Their sudden departures came hours after the Metro board met in a closed meeting.
Metro announced earlier this month that Randy Clarke, who leads Austin’s transit agency, would replace Wiedefeld later this summer. Clarke, who previously had leadership and safety roles at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston, said improving Metro’s safety culture would be a priority.
Wiedefeld came to Metro 10 months after passenger Carol Glover, 61, died when a stalled rail car filled with smoke outside the L’Enfant Plaza station because of safety failures and emergency response delays, according to multiple investigations. With the transit agency under federal pressure to improve, Wiedefeld made safety his priority when hired in November 2015, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades.
Metro crammed three years of maintenance into a year during its SafeTrack program. On-time performance of cars increased to more than 90 percent, and ridership was growing before the pandemic halted the momentum.
From the outside, it appeared Metro’s self-sabotaging ways were being left behind. But safety audits over the past two years showed the agency continued to disregard procedures, endangering workers by not sealing off work areas from train traffic, re-energizing track power without knowing whether personnel were still on the track and failing to keep adequate records or report issues to the safety commission.
Joe McAndrew, vice president for government affairs and infrastructure at the Greater Washington Partnership, a founding partner of the MetroNow coalition that seeks to help put Metro on a stable path forward, said it’s difficult to find what would fix the system.
“All along, we were told things were getting better — the safety culture was getting better, the workforce was attuned to running a safe and reliable systems — and, unfortunately, that has not happened,” he said. “Patience is wearing thin in the business community, the advocacy community, the ridership and residents of this region to continue to try to defend this institution.”
Although many observers have praised Wiedefeld’s tenure, he also leaves a system plagued by a work culture where critical safety issues are identified but often not addressed — a frequent complaint of Metro regulators.
“Having a leadership transition presents an opportunity,” said James Dyke, a former Metro board member who co-chaired a Blue-Ribbon Commission that in 2010 recommended changes to how Metro is managed and governed. “Now is the time for the two governors and mayor to step in and ask, ‘What do we have to do to get this done?’ ”
Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said Friday the board is proud of its agency oversight. He said the board’s actions have resulted in an overhaul of cultural and staffing problems at Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center after a scathing audit in 2020, as well as safety upgrades and corrective actions completed for past violations.
“We also ensure that we represent the interests of each jurisdictional partner and people who live in the region,” Smedberg said in a statement. “Each Board member takes this responsibility very seriously, and works closely with staff to ensure that we have the information and resources available to support our decision-making.”
Changes have come swiftly in the past week since Metro’s board announced the departures of Weidefeld and Leader. On Thursday, the agency submitted a long-awaited plan — which the safety commission approved — to put some of Metro’s 7000-series rail cars back on the track after a seven-month suspension that followed a derailment. All 748 cars in the series were pulled from service in October after a federal investigation uncovered a safety defect pushed wheels apart on nearly 50 cars.
The 7000 series makes up about 60 percent of Metro’s fleet. The cars’ absences have led to a train shortage that has lengthened waits and frustrated riders, many of whom have been returning to work for the first time this spring since the pandemic began. Rail ridership has hovered at about 35 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
On Friday, officials said wait times on the Green and Yellow lines are back down to 15 minutes. The waits had increased to 20 minutes, on average, after Metro removed 72 operators for recertification classes and testing one week ago. Twenty-five of those operators completed recertification, shoring up the ranks of operators enough to improve frequencies, Metro interim general manager Andrew Off wrote Friday in an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post.
Off, Metro’s senior vice president for capital projects and a former assistant general manager, also announced Friday that Mike Hass, Metro’s senior vice president of rail services, will replace Leader as Metro’s interim second-in-command.
The quick response from the agency to get back on track shows two parts of Metro’s oversight — the safety commission and the board — working as designed, said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
“We can’t fault the board,” he said. “The board had a safety commission that did their work. They brought their findings to the board, and the board took very swift action and two people resigned immediately. That is a proper functioning of a board.”
But Allen called it “reactive” action. He said Metro needs more “proactive” action to change the system’s culture and not allow for a “colossal management failure” to occur again.
Efforts to alter the agency’s governance structure have run into difficulty winning support.
The most recent attempt, part of a 2017 examination of the system led by former U.S. secretary of transportation Ray LaHood, recommended Metro shrink the board to streamline decision-making. Elected leaders ultimately agreed to reduce the board’s size to eight members and eight alternates.
Maryland Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery County) said Metro has needed stronger oversight since he first ran for his seat in 2014. He said one way the state has improved oversight is by putting the secretary of transportation on the Metro board, a practice that started in 2018. But Korman said he still has issues with the way the Metro board is structured.
“There is a real lack of political accountability because [Metro] does not report up to a single executive,” such as a governor, Korman wrote in an email.
Also missing, officials say, is consistency with how members are appointed and paid, with compensation set by the jurisdictions they represent.
Thomas Downs, a former Metro board chairman, argued that board members should not be political appointees but, instead, should be selected based on their knowledge of transportation. Downs, a former Amtrak chief executive and career transit expert, fell out of favor with Bowser in 2015 amid disagreements over Metro’s leadership needs.
“The fundamental issue is that the appointing jurisdictions cheapen the board by appointing political ne’er-do-wells who have some contact with the appointing authority, and they know nothing about transit,” he said. “A number of them have never been in the public sector. A number of them come equipped with preconceived notions … unfounded in reality.”
Jack McDougle, chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said the Washington region needs to give Metro’s board the opportunity to work though its current problems — especially with a new chief executive arriving within weeks.
“If they don’t really step up for that, then we would probably have to think about whether there are any additional things that we might think about with regard to [changing] the board,” McDougle said. “But right now, I think we give them the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the new general manager to come in.”