Council members wonder about Red Line delays, Metro contractor use and "dedicated funding"
ROCKVILLE -- Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld answered questions from the Montgomery County Council about Red Line service, use of contractors and financial contributions from the jurisdictions on which Metro would be able to sell debt.
County Council President Roger Berliner (D-1) asked when Metro will fix the Red Line in terms of water leaking into stations such as Medical Center and Bethesda. County Council member Tom Hucker (D-5) said some of his constituents have asked why delays occur on the Red Line for problems such as electrical arcing, which can cause smoke, though Metro finished its year-long repair program SafeTrack a few days before.
Red Line service delays occurred during the Friday morning rush hour service. Metro attributed it to two arcing insulators, which hold the power source third rail above the ground.
Hucker asked Wiedefeld what he would say to riders.
Wiedefeld said track repairs and projects during SafeTrack were different from problems that cause arcing insulators.
“The Red Line is totally different than SafeTrack,” Wiedefeld said.
Wiedefeld said the two arcing insulators that resulted in single-tracking, shutdowns and delays for Red Line riders Friday stemmed from water leaking into stations between Medical Center and Dupont Circle. Those problems may continue to appear until Metro fixes the underground tunnels to reduce the amount of water that leaks through cracks in the tunnels.
“The arcing insulators, which is the issue we’ve had Friday particularly, that has been an issue that’s been around that’s been documented for decades,” Wiedefeld said.
He compared the tunnel conditions to Luray Caverns in Virginia, a comparison the Council president has made before.
“A solution is-- that tunnel that was built unlike any tunnel we’ve had, and it allows moisture to come in, and that creates problems,” he said.
“It was designed to leak, in effect,” Wiedefeld added.
Metro pumps hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from that section of track on a daily basis, Wiedefeld said. The moisture comes from the fact that that section of the Red Line is located underground below the water table. He said arcing insulators are more likely to occur when it rains.
Metro had studied one solution which was building a tunnel inside the existing tunnel in 2013. Wiedefeld said the project would be expensive and would be detrimental to Red Line service.
“You can imagine what that would do to riders,” Wiedefeld said.
He said with enthusiasm he “can’t wait” for what he called a design and evaluation study of possible solutions so Metro can obtain funding to solve the leaking problem. He said Metro lately has tried applying what he said resembles tin foil along tunnel walls, to try to lead the moisture to the tunnel drainage system, but that trains traveling 15 to 20 miles per hour “pull it out.”
Metro has said crews also patch the cracks to stop the water.
Wiedefeld proposed a detailed engineering study so Metro can understand the options management considers. Metro previously had not conducted detailed engineering studies on the Medical Center-to-Dupont Circle section of the Red Line, rather only reviewed ideas for solutions.
Berliner encouraged Council members to visit the Red Line segment with Metro, a trip he had taken a few years ago.
Berliner said he believes it’s time to fix the leaking Red Line tunnel.
“I think we’ve reached that point, we’ve got to make progress,” Berliner said after the meeting. “We’ve got to get serious about fixing it.”
Wiedefeld prioritized other problems during SafeTrack. The Metro general manager said one of the worst problems he observed before SafeTrack was defective wooden rail ties, which are supposed to hold in place the rails on which the trains operate.
“The condition of some of those (rail) ties was just unimaginable,” Wiedefeld said.
Defective rail ties can lead to train derailments, such as the one that occurred last year. Metro investigators said defective rail ties led to the tracks spreading too far apart and allowed a train to go off its rails July 29. That happened at the same time a SafeTrack project was taking place nearby. Two riders from the derailed train were taken to a hospital including a man with a minor head injury. Metro shut down a few stations that weekend and replace the crossover the derailed train had passed through, which had originally been scheduled for later.
Wiedefeld told the Council Tuesday he would have started his SafeTrack program as soon as he assumed the position of general manager and chief executive officer if he had known about the problems that were in the system.
“The way that I have framed this was-- I started Nov. 30, 2015, and if I had known then what I know now, I would have started SafeTrack that minute,” Wiedefeld.
Metro workers and contractors fixed the problems that were “in front of us” first, Wiedefeld said. He wanted people to understand that that was his reasoning for the projects he selected. He said riders are safer because of SafeTrack.
“Their rides will be a little smoother, a little quieter, but at the end of the day it’s the exact same ride, except A, they’re not in danger, and B, the odds of something happening, a delay caused by a track issue, is dramatically down.”
Wiedefeld said Metro transports about 177,000 County residents per day across its services of rail, bus and MetroAccess, for riders with disabilities.
“Day to day, it means so much to your residents and to your constituents,” Wiedefeld told the full Council.
In the plan Wiedefeld presented to the Council and other local jurisdictions, he called for $500 million in additional annual dedicated funding from D.C., Maryland and Virginia. He proposed the money go to a capital fund that could only be used on capital projects to invest in safety and reliability, rather than on emergency repairs.
A few Council members shared their concerns and some gave their opinion on the matter.
Wiedefeld had said a dedicated Metro tax was one idea for a source of money Metro would be guaranteed to receive, or a “dedicated funding source.”
Council member Marc Elrich (D- At Large) said he was reluctant to support having dedicated funding come solely from a tax.
Council member Nancy Floreen (D- At Large) said the Council did not formally discuss the topic of a “dedicated funding source” so the members’ comments were their own opinions.
Berliner, who has been vocal about Metro funding on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said he believes Maryland will approve a dedicated funding source to Metro in the next legislative session.
“I think we will find the way to get to yes in Maryland,” Berliner said after the meeting.
“The key is going to be Virginia.”
Elrich asked Wiedefeld why spending on contractors increased during fiscal year 2017. Wiedefeld said a majority of the increase this fiscal year was due to SafeTrack, in that Metro did not have enough people to complete the work that had to be done in one year.
He said he does not have a motive to specifically cut members of his own work force.
“It’s not anti-labor, it’s not anti-anything,” Wiedefeld said.
He said he did not believe contracting work was a “panacea.”
“There’s times when it works and times when it doesn’t,” Wiedefeld said.
Wiedefeld said he did not agree with the idea that he had too few Metro laborers. He said sometimes he might not have the right number of people to complete a specific task or project.
Hucker asked whether Metro will increase its total number of contract employees by a similar percentage again.
Hucker said he didn’t oppose the idea of hiring additional contractors in fiscal year 2018, which begins on Saturday.
“I wouldn’t ask him to rule out contractors (forever),” Hucker said. “He said he didn’t have a privatization agenda.”
“I’ll take him at his word on that,” he added.
Wiedefeld said he made no plans to so far but he may hire more contractors on a large scale in fiscal year 2018, depending on what he finds out during Back2Good.
“Let’s see what we find when we’re out there,” Wiedefeld said. “If we find some issues that we can’t get to quick enough… (we) may contract out.”
Hucker said he hopes Metro’s spending on contractors will not increase sharply a second year in a row.
“I just hope the growth in contract costs won’t continue beyond this year,” Hucker said Tuesday.