WASHINGTON, D.C. - More than two years after the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) takeover of Metro oversight, and three months after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) finished its yearlong track rehabilitation project known as SafeTrack, much work is still needed for the rail system.
While Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said SafeTrack accomplished three years worth of repairs were done in just a year, the FTA reports there is still a list of 109 safety deficiencies that are past due.
When Wiedefeld arrived in November 2015, he took over a transit system that had long neglected maintenance. After a fire involving a cable occurred near McPherson Square Station on March 14, 2016, Wiedefeld needed to do something drastic and shutdown the system for 24 hours on March 16 so workers could inspect “jumper cables” that connect sections of the power source third rail.
Wiedefeld told reporters that Metro had inspected all the cables the previous year, but he was having them all inspected again. After the shutdown, he said Metro inspectors found three locations with conditions so severe that the nearby stations should not have been open for service.
The next month, when he met with the Montgomery County Council on April 6, he said Metro inspectors were inspecting the entire rail system for safety and maintenance issues, and that he was getting ready to launch a plan to catch Metro up on preventative maintenance. That plan turned out to be SafeTrack.
“I knew obviously there were issues – I didn’t know the depth of them,” Wiedefeld said during the final SafeTrack project at Rockville Station this year.
October 9, 2015, was the day former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said he had finally seen enough from Washington’s mass transit system.
After years of workplace deaths, safety problems and inadequate oversight, the FTA’s patience finally ran out when an 61-year-old woman died after L’Enfant Plaza Station filled with smoke in January 2015.
The incident led Foxx to make the unprecedented decision to take over safety oversight of WMATA. Last April’s system wide shutdown of Metro revealed a mass transit system plagued by a history of safety, oversight and management problems.
“FTA has the capability to assert this authority and, at my direction, will do so immediately,” Foxx said in an October 2015 letter. “This increased oversight means that FTA will now directly enforce and investigate the safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail until the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia establish a fully functioning and capable SSOA (State Safety Oversight Agency).”
It took numerous Congressional hearings, fights between federal bureaucratic agencies and a mandate by the federal government to the local jurisdictions that control Metro funding (D.C., Maryland and Virginia) before they finally created a new oversight body, the Metro Safety Commission, in August.
This is what the system looked like when Wiedefeld took over as Metro’s new general manager in November 2015 with a list from the FTA of 268 safety deficiencies he needed to fix.
WMATA has agreed to address the 268 Corrective Action Plans (CAP) for safety deficiencies. As of June 2, WMATA has corrected 71, while 16 are under review by the FTA and 72 are not due yet. Currently, 109 are still past due.
Some of these CAPs are two years past due, with due dates for corrections of the safety errors dating back to as late as October and December 2015.
One of the past due CAPs that was supposed to be fixed by July 2016 said debris blocks Metro’s “emergency egress landings and areas of refuge.”
“WMATA must address the debris and equipment blocking the emergency access landings and area of rescue assistance identified by the Tri-state Oversight Committee (TOC). WMATA also must ensure that contractors are briefed on proper safety protocol and that WMATA personnel periodically inspect contractor work on WMATA property,” according to the FTA’s description of the safety deficiency.
WMATA applied for a closure request, meaning it filed documents with the FTA saying it corrected the safety issue. Howver the FTA rejected that request effectively stating that it did not believe WMATA addressed the debris issue standards suitable to federal officials.
Another CAP from the FTA, due in September 2016, said there were several fire extinguishers with expired inspection tags in the air conditioning and communications rooms at Fort Totten and Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Stations. In 2009, one train crashed into a stopped train between Fort Totten and Takoma stations, killing nine people. According to the FTA, WMATA has not issued a request for closure.
“I couldn’t tell why Metro hasn’t gotten them done, they seem to be pretty darn easy,” said Gus Ubaldi, a rail transit engineer who used to work for WMATA in the 1970s.
Ubaldi reviewed WMATA’s past due safety deficiencies, but said it was hard to make sense of most of the CAPs given the vague descriptions provided by the FTA. Ubaldi did specifically comment on the expired inspection tags and debris blocking emergency egress areas saying, in general, both problems should be simple fixes for WMATA.
WMATA itself sets the due dates for correction contained in the CAPs, said Steve Kulm, a public affairs officer with the FTA. Kulm said a CAP issued by WMATA can be past due for a number of reasons including if WMATA did not submit a form for closure of the CAP, the FTA rejected WMATA’s closure of the CAP or WMATA submitted the CAP closure request past the WMATA-set due date.
Kulm said there is a special FTA/WMATA Oversight Team at the FTA that meets on a regular basis with WMATA officials to go over the CAPs.
“The team meets with WMATA staff on a bi-weekly basis to discuss CAP submittals,” Kulm said. “As a regular part of the agenda, any past due CAP is discussed until the team can verify WMATA has fully implemented it. The FTA keeps track of the CAPs on a special webpage dedicated to WMATA.”
There were 109 past due CAPs when the table was last updated June 2, which Kulm said is the latest update.
Metro has a well-documented history of safety lapses.
In December 2009, the TOC, Metro’s state-level safety oversight body which FTA later replaced, published a report that detailed an extensive list of workplace safety violations and a lack of a safety culture at WMATA.
TOC said in the report it intensified its inspections of Metro after three separate incidents where four WMATA employees died on the job in 2005 and 2006. The TOC found WMATA employees using improper safety procedures including an instance where TOC inspectors, while on the job, were almost hit by an oncoming train.
“Though there were no injuries, the employees and review team members were forced to quickly scramble out of the way to avoid being struck by the train in question due to the speed with which it appeared to approach,” the 2009 TOC report says.
Former WMATA employees said an adequate safety culture was lacking at WMATA, but were reluctant to describe specific cases out of fear of being identified by their former employer.
“That was the worse move of my life,” said a former high-level management employee at WMATA. “It was just a constant battle to get anything done – a constant battle.”
One former WMATA employee said while upper-level management tried to implement safety reforms at Metro, they would seldom trickle down to the lower level employees.
“The mindset at the supervisor level and down is they really don’t do nothing unless they’re specially directed to do it,” a former management-level WMATA employee said. “They could walk right over something that was broke and not fix it because they were not told to do it.”
Another former WMATA management employee disagreed, saying instead safety was the first concern of his department of WMATA.
“I guess from my perspective at least in the area I was involved with, safety was always at the forefront,” that employee said.
The former WMATA management employee blamed a lack of adequate funding for Metro’s safety issues, saying often choices had to be made between repairs and preventative maintenance given there was often not enough funds for both.
“If you emphasize nothing else there are a tremendous number of dedicated, hard working people at Metro and the news media talks about the one percent-ers and that’s where I get emotional,” the former employee said.
Beyond the safety culture, most of the former Metro employees, as well as current WMATA board members, local elected leaders and other stakeholders tend to agree that Metro needs more funding.
Unlike many mass transit systems throughout the country, Metro does not have a dedicated funding source such as a special tax that goes directly for the system. Instead it relies on the fares it charges and funding via subsidies from the jurisdictions within Maryland, D.C. and Virginia.
Fare revenues have become a problem for the system as ridership has declined, with a drop in nearly 74,000 trips per average weekday from 2015 to 2016, according a historical ridership report provided by WMATA, causing a major funding issue for Metro.
Turning to the subsidy, Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-15) said often his fellow delegates from outside Montgomery and Prince George’s counties do not consider Metro as a top priority for the state even as the two counties’ delegations press for more funding.
While politicians debate within state capitals for more funding for Metro, the fact that the system is a tristate transit system complicates things. While larger transit systems exist in New York or Chicago, the Washington, D.C. transit system crosses into two different states and the District of Colombia, which, for all intents and purposes for mass transit, acts as its own state.
“You’ve got three jurisdictions that disagree with each other on labor issues, that disagree with each other on taxation…those are two big issues not to have agreement on,” said Del. Kumar Barve (D-17).
Barve said the solution for Metro is for the federal government to step up and kick in more funding. Asking the federal government for more help with Metro has of late become a bi-partisan solution.
Gov. Larry Hogan said he spoke multiple times with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao about increasing the federal government funding for Metro. At a groundbreaking for the Purple Line light rail commuter train on Aug. 28, where he met with Chao, Hogan echoed the need for the federal government to spend more on Metro.
“In our very first meeting I talked about more federal funding for Metro, that’s probably one of the things we’ll be talking about today as well,” Hogan said, before heading to a summit with Virginia and D.C. leaders about regional issues including Metro.
According to media reports, the meeting revealed disagreements among the region’s leaders over implementing a regional sales tax for Metro, but consensus that the federal government should contribute financially to the system.
On Aug. 22, President Donald Trump finally ended a seven-year effort to get Metro a new oversight body when he signed a bill into law giving consent to D.C., Maryland and Virginia to replace the now defunct TOC – although it is unclear if it will make a difference.
The push began during the last presidential administration, spanning from a federal takeover of Metro safety oversight and a threat from two different U.S. secretaries of Transportation (Foxx and Chao) to pull funding, to multi-year efforts from the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. legislative bodies to approve legislation for a new safety oversight body to oversee Metro.
Barve, who chairs the Environment and Transportation Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates, said a new oversight body will not be any different than the last one.
“You can’t make trains safer by having another committee. You make the trains safer by hiring more people to make the trains safer,” Barve said.
In 2015, the Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx gave Maryland, D.C. and Virginia a deadline: each of the jurisdictions must pass a law approving the establishment of a new tristate oversight body by February 2017.
By February of this year, a new presidential administration had come into office and brought with it a new secretary of transportation who followed up on Foxx’s threat and withheld $5 million in funding from the jurisdictions when they missed the deadline to establish the safety oversight agency.
While all three jurisdictions passed a version of the bill approving the Metro Safety Commission (MSC) during their legislative sessions, Barve said Maryland was held up because it was late in getting guidelines from the federal government on its legislation.
Larry Mann, an attorney who helped craft the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, and who represented family members of victims in the deadly 2009 Fort Totten Metro Crash, said the Metro Safety Commission will not have any more authority to enforce safety standards than the now-defunct TOC.
“The statute does not give them prescriptive right to issue regulations. It allows them to set safety policies, but that is not the same, in my view, as being able to mandate and enforce prescriptive type regulations,” Mann said.
The Metro Safety Commission is not the region’s first oversight body dedicated to Metro safety. In 1997, D.C., Maryland and Virginia joined together to create the Tri-State Oversight Committee after the Department of Transportation mandated rail transit systems not regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration to create a state safety oversight body. Both Maryland and Virginia appointed two members, while D.C. appointed one member to the committee.
Just 13 years later, the three jurisdictions decided to dissolve TOC after the numerous Metro accidents, deaths and safety violations that happened under TOC’s watch.
As then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, then-Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty came to an understanding to dissolve TOC, the FTA was issuing a strong rebuke of both the oversight body and WMATA to the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee.
In 2010, the FTA audited both TOC and WMATA and published a report detailed in then-FTA administrator Peter M. Rogoff’s testimony to Congress (on the same day the three leaders met to disband the body) where he said TOC and WMATA had failed to properly provide adequate safety oversight.
“The audit concludes that these two agencies face serious challenges that could compromise the safety of WMATA’s riders, if left unaddressed,” Rogoff said then. “While each of these agencies has effected recent improvements, a great deal more needs to be done to ensure that those advances become a permanent feature within the safety culture.”
For five years TOC remained the oversight body for Metro. It continued as it did before, issuing reports and coming up with a list of safety deficiencies Metro needed to fix on its rail system. It still had little authority to enforce and safety regulations.
Foxx said in his Oct.9, 2015, letter to National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Chris Hart that the 2015 smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza Station was a turning point for the federal government. The Department of Transportation would no longer wait for the jurisdictions to pass laws creating a new oversight body with teeth and instead, in an unprecedented move, took over safety oversight for D.C.’s mass-transit system.
Using the list that was in part crafted by TOC, FTA handed a list of the 268 safety deficiencies Metro needed to correct, through Corrective Action Plans, and had its own officials help inspect Metro rail system while Foxx, secretary of transportation, gave a deadline to the jurisdictions to set up a new oversight body and threatened to shut down the transit system if problems were not resolved.
Mann said the new Metro Safety Commission will not have more authority than its predecessor and will not require its members to have a background in safety.
The text of the law creating the MSC specifies that “members and alternate members shall have backgrounds in transit safety, transportation, relevant engineering disciplines, or public finance,” and the chief executive officer of the commission “shall have expertise in transportation safety and one or more industry-recognized transportation safety certifications.”
In addition, Mann was concerned by the fact that any one of the three signatory can disband the Metro Safety Commission by themselves.
“I just don't think it's going to be effective,” Mann said.