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Metro board eyes more hands-on, stricter oversight after crises

Board members are expecting Metro staff members to share more detailed and timely information about major issues

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg attends a meeting at Metro's headquarters in Washington. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

As Metro stumbled from one crisis to another in recent weeks while commuter disruptions persisted, the chairman of the transit agency’s board publicly defended its oversight.

But since the revelation last month that half of train operators lack adequate certifications, the release of a report citing a “culture of noncompliance” and the resignation of Metro’s top two executives, the board has increased its scrutiny of the nation’s third-largest transit system. It has instructed Metro leaders to provide more timely and thorough information aimed at helping board members head off trouble before it emerges.

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said Metro and its board have a collaborative working relationship, but he acknowledged Friday that Metro is undergoing a transition due to the “moment” the agency is in. The changes come at a time of intense pressure on the agency to boost service and restore public confidence — moves that Metro leaders say will bring more pandemic-era ridership amid a looming budget crunch.

“We’ve changed a lot and there’s more coming,” Smedberg on Wednesday told a Maryland House subcommittee in Annapolis, where he was asked to testify about oversight. “We’re going to be looking at the way we do our meetings and the types of information we get — but [also] when we get it.”

Metro’s recurring problems raise questions about oversight, management

Metro spokeswoman Kristie Swink Benson said in an email that interim general manager Andy Off’s approach since taking the reins of the agency is “to bring everyone along, which includes providing updates to the chairman and board.” Randy Clarke, the chief executive of the Austin-based Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, will begin his role as Metro general manager this summer.

Former board members say part of the reason Metro’s board is briefed on a limited number of issues stems from the complexity involved in operating the rail system, which can require technical understanding of engineering concepts. But in less than a year, Metro has been cited for multiple safety failures that have severely affected transit service.

In many cases, the issues have also come to the Metro board’s attention at the last minute.

Tom Bulger served on Metro’s board for 11 years until December, when he stepped down because of a rule change that reduced the role of nonvoting members. During his time, he said, board members were typically briefed on issues of immediate concern or those that involved action, such as budget issues.

But Bulger said he believes Metro leadership kept board members in the dark so that they wouldn’t change the way employees have operated for years.

“My personal opinion is the less the board knows, the more management can do whatever the hell they want,” Bulger said.

He said he never heard of a defect that led to the suspension of all 748 of Metro’s 7000-series cars — a move that has created a seven-month train shortage — despite some Metro employees having enough knowledge to begin warranty discussions with the cars’ manufacturer.

“For the life of me, I could never understand how they couldn’t tell the board that they were having a problem with X, Y and Z,” Bulger said. “Like the trucks on the new cars. They never told us that, ‘Oh, we think it’s this or that, or the warranty issue.’ They never told us any of it. So you’re just in the dark most of the time.”

David L. Mayer, chief executive of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission — the rail system’s regulatory agency — told Maryland legislators this month that Metro’s cultural problems are deep-rooted. The commission said in a 2020 audit that Metro managers have not only overlooked workers who disregarded safety protocols, but in some cases have instructed them to do so.

“It’s not an engineering kind of thing,” Mayer said. “It’s a people and culture kind of thing. It’s a procedures kind of thing.”

Top Metro leaders step down one day after agency announces training lapses

Metrorail ridership is hovering at about 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels. The transit agency has survived steep fare revenue losses during the pandemic with the help of billions of dollars in coronavirus relief aid that will begin to run out in summer 2023. Metro officials would probably need to make budget cuts at that time without a substantial increase in ridership or new revenue sources.

Metro’s recent misfortunes began when a Blue Line train derailed last October, resulting in a federal investigation and suspension of about 60 percent of Metro’s rail cars. The derailment was caused by a defect in the wheels and axles of the 7000 series, a discovery that led the safety commission to require Metro to come up with a way to operate them safely.

Federal investigators discovered some Metro employees had known for years about the defect, which forces wheels to migrate outward. Routine or emergency inspections revealed almost 50 cases since 2017, but the malfunction hadn’t been reported to the safety commission, as required, until last year’s derailment. Metro’s board also wasn’t told of the defect, board members have said.

Last month, Metro revealed that 250 train operators — about half of all its conductors — had not completed required recertification training and testing because Metro officials lost track of a waiver program created during the pandemic, then stopped the training program because of the train shortage. In that case, Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato told board members as soon as she learned of the problem, Smedberg said.

The lapses resulted in Metro pulling 72 train operators from service for retraining, a move that created additional rail delays. At that point, elected officials became more critical of the transit agency’s leadership, with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) saying Metro had a “management problem.” The lapses led to the resignations of then-General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld and Chief Operations Officer Joseph Leader.

A day after their resignations, the safety commission issued a May 17 order that restricts how Metro controls power on its track. The safety commission found that Metro wasn’t following guidelines that help to prevent electrocutions and other worker incidents. The findings were the latest in a recurring problem the commission has brought up so often that Metro created a “power desk” in its rail operations control center to ensure safety protocols are followed.

Employees staffing the desk were still found to be deviating from those guidelines, according to the order. Smedberg told Maryland legislators he couldn’t remember being told of issues with power restoration, until recently.

“I can’t honestly recall,” he told the subcommittee. “I would have to check.”

After safety lapses, Metro board says agency is getting back on track

Smedberg said the board can only act and influence issues if its members know what’s going on — a responsibility he said falls on Metro’s directors.

“Communication is a two-way street,” Smedberg said in Annapolis. “And we cannot take any action or insist on any action unless we are getting the information that we need and that the staff — and the executive staff in particular — is communicating properly with the board, so we know the types of questions to ask and the types of things we need to do.”

Bulger said board members should be more involved in making decisions. He said many work in transit or transportation-related jobs outside of their board roles and have an understanding and connections that could help Metro solve problems.

Smedberg also noted the board’s experience. He cited members who have worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Transit Administration as well as others who are transportation consultants.

“The group we have now,” he told Maryland House members, “is engaged.”