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Suspended Metro trains to return Thursday amid eight-month shortage

Also Wednesday, a coalition of environmental groups filed an ethics complaint against a Metro board member

Passengers head toward a 7000-series train in Rockville. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Metro announced Wednesday it has completed preparations to return eight of its suspended trains to passenger service over the next several days, with the first scheduled to show up Thursday on the Green and Yellow lines.

The development came on the same day that a coalition of environmental groups filed an ethics complaint against a Metro board member who they say has ties to the fossil-fuel industry.

The 7000-series trains are Metro’s latest and most advanced model, but they have been out of service since mid-October, when a federal derailment investigation found a defect that can cause wheels to move on their axles. Metrorail’s oversight agency removed all 748 of the cars in the series, which make up 60 percent of Metro’s fleet.

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Their absence has created an eight-month train shortage that has frustrated riders with lengthy waits across the nation’s third-largest transit system. The arrival of a small number of trains, while having little effect on wait times in the short term, is the first significant step toward boosting service as the transit agency seeks to lure back riders more than two years into the pandemic.

The returning trains will appear first on the Green and Yellow lines, transit officials said, before being deployed to the Blue, Orange and Silver lines in July to help shorten waits to 15 minutes.

While the eight trains could help to slowly ease crowding, Metro is at least several weeks away from restoring its entire fleet, a move that would allow the rail system to run pre-pandemic service levels.

Metro received permission in May to put 64 cars — which can form eight trains — back into service under a plan that requires daily wheel inspections. The agency has spent weeks training inspectors on the screening process, while continuing to work toward an automated inspection system it hopes will persuade regulators to reinstate all of the cars.

Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) issued a joint statement late Wednesday, saying the return of the trains was “welcome news.” They urged Metro interim general manager Andy Off to continue working toward instilling a stronger safety culture at the transit agency, which continues to work through multiple recent safety violations.

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Also Wednesday, the Metro Electric Bus Coalition — made up of groups that include Greenpeace USA, multiple Sierra Club chapters and the Union of Concerned Scientists — said in an ethics complaint that Metro board member Matthew F. Letourneau should have recused himself last year when the board voted unanimously to convert Metro’s bus fleet to zero-emission by 2045. In a 15-page memo, the coalition argued Letourneau is in violation of Metro’s ethics policy for multiple reasons.

“We’re alleging that he’s representing the interests of the oil and gas industry and not representing the public interest,” said Elliott Negin, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Letourneau is managing director of communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, where he serves as a spokesman on energy and environmental issues for the chamber. The institute states it supports renewable energy that supports low- to zero-emission electric power, but also believes more gas and oil production should be a “national priority.” It also advocates for the easing of pipeline permit processes and drilling on federal lands.

Letourneau declined to comment “out of respect for the ethics process” and referred questions to Metro. In a statement, board chairman Paul C. Smedberg said Metro’s Ethics Committee will meet June 23 to consider the complaint and make a determination.

“The board takes allegations of ethics violations seriously and will give it a full and impartial consideration,” Smedberg said.

The coalition alleged Letourneau is violating a clause in the Metro board ethics policy that states members must “act in the best interests of [Metro] and their respective Jurisdiction in carrying out their duties as Board Members, rather than in the Member’s interest or in the interest of another person or organization with which the Board Members are personally associated.”

As a Loudoun County supervisor, Letourneau (R) has received nearly $20,000 in campaign contributions from fossil-fuel interests including donations from officials at the American Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute. Of that, William B. Holtzman, owner of the Holtzman Oil Corp., has contributed $15,000 to his campaigns, according to Virginia election records.

Metro is phasing out diesel-powered buses, with plans to transform its fleet to electric by 2045

Electric buses have grown in popularity in recent years amid growing concerns over climate change. Last year, the Metro board — including Letourneau — voted for a conversion of Metro’s fleet under a phased plan that slowly increases the purchase of electric buses annually.

Critics, including the Metro Electric Bus Coalition, say that timeline is slower than other major transit agencies at a time when Metro plans to continue investing in gas-powered buses and related infrastructure.

The electric bus coalition alleges Letourneau has made statements during board discussions that are inaccurate, helping to lower Metro’s fleet-conversion ambitions.

“He has consistently made false statements and misleading statements about the alleged benefits of natural gas buses, which he is promoting heavily, and denigrated the feasibility of electrifying the fleet,” Negin said.

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Metro’s fleet includes about 1,500 buses, most of which operate on compressed natural gas (CNG), diesel or a combination of diesel and electricity. The agency’s conversion plan calls for replacing worn-out buses with more electric vehicles each year until the fleet is all electric in 23 years. The bus coalition argues against additional spending for compressed natural gas buses and a planned expansion of fueling capabilities at one of the agency’s garages.

“It makes no sense for Metro to commit more than $5 million to a new CNG fueling facility and millions more to expand its CNG facility at Bladensburg,” said Steve Banashek, electric vehicle chair for the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.

Last year, Letourneau spoke in favor of a phased approach to conversion, saying a transit agency the size of Metro “can’t turn on a dime.”

The coalition, which reviewed recordings of board meetings, also cited Letourneau’s statement in a 2020 board meeting when he said “it doesn’t make a lot of sense to convert to electric buses that will be running on electricity coming from natural gas and then not necessarily invest in CNG buses and then act like we’ve really done something, because we haven’t.” The coalition said in the memo that the statement “ignores the fact that electric buses are better for the climate than diesel, diesel-electric hybrid and CNG buses across the country, regardless of their electricity source.”

The complaint said comparable agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, are outpacing Metro, which will have less than 20 percent of its fleet converted in 2030. LA Metro plans to have completely switched over by that time.

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Coalition members said they are not challenging Letourneau on other issues.

“We are not calling into question Mr. Letourneau’s ability to continue serving on the Metro board,” said Timothy Oberleiton, an attorney with Earthjustice. “However, in light of Mr. Letourneau’s clear ties to the oil and gas industry, it is imperative that he recuse himself from participating in any discussions, deliberations and decisions regarding the future of the Metro bus fleet.”