General Assembly, union debate Metro safety commission while FTA cuts funding

Metro Station DC 12 2011 00062ANNAPOLIS – A Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) union member said at a bill hearing that he was concerned about the future of due process for employees if Maryland legislators pass a bill to create a new safety commission.

The commission would serve as WMATA’s state-level safety oversight agency, which Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia are required to set up by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The FTA has acted as Metro’s temporary state-level safety oversight agency since October 2015 after it determined the previous oversight agency, the tri-state oversight commission, failed to fulfill its safety oversight role effectively. The Metro Safety Commission would take over from the FTA.

Quincey Jones, executive board shop steward for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, testified on behalf of his union. Jones told the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Feb. 9 that he found two main problems with the text of the bill.

Jones said while he and Local 689 supported the creation of a safety commission, his first concern was that the WMATA safety commission would have the power to order WMATA to suspend or remove an employee from what the bill referred to as a “safety sensitive” position.

Under the bill, the commission would be able to urge WMATA to comply with a corrective action plan or safety directive, if the commission determined that a person was unfit for the position after breaking a safety rule, a policy or a regulation.

Jones said he believed the commission would eliminate due process for all safety employees.

“It also oversteps the language of the WMATA Compact, the language of the negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement, and takes away an employee’s right to due process,” he said.

Jones said he believes authors of the bill should have specified how members of the proposed WMATA safety commission could decide to use the power to order an employee’s suspension or disqualification from a safety job.

“That provision provides the commission with sweeping power without defining what criteria they will use,” Jones said.

Kevin Reigrut, assistant secretary of operations with the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), disagreed with Jones and said the proposed safety compact in the bill includes due process because the commission would have the capacity to be sued or to sue, though legislators did not use the term “due process.”

Jones’ other concern was about a lack of specificity in the bill’s text as to the type of training the commission would require Metro employees with safety-related jobs to complete. He asked the committee members to speak with WMATA management about developing training.

“Secondly, there is language … referring to safety training, but does not specify what role our union will play,” Jones said. “It also fails to specify the type of training that will be required, or how necessary training will be determined. We hope that you will encourage WMATA, through your legislative power, to work with us on training development.”

Del. Alfred Carr, Jr. (D-Montgomery County) said he believed Local 689’s concerns were legitimate, but making a change could result in the legislation taking an additional year to pass.

“Their concerns are valid concerns that need to be considered and addressed, but if we make a unilateral change in the 11th hour just in Maryland, it could be another year before we have these safety improvements,” Carr said.

He said the union had other opportunities to share concerns prior to Thursday’s hearing.

“I wish they had voiced their concerns earlier in the process,” Carr said. “This bill has been discussed since the summer. We had a hearing in this very room in the joint committee on federal relations.”

Reigrut agreed with Carr and said MDOT hoped amendments to the bill wouldn’t be needed because amendments would require the bill to go back to the D.C. City Council, which already approved it.

“At this point if an amendment to this legislation happens it would be problematic, there’s no question,” Reigrut said.

However, Reigrut said an amendment is not out of the question.

Legislators have good reason to be concerned with timely passage of the bill. The FTA had threatened to withhold federal funding for Maryland, Virginia and D.C. if all three jurisdictions had not passed legislation to create the commission by Feb. 9. On Feb. 10, the FTA made good on that threat. In a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, the FTA said it would not release 5 percent of the federal transit formula funds allocated for various transportation projects in the three jurisdictions until the commission was established. Approximately $15 million is at stake over the entire fiscal year, including $4 million earmarked for the Metro system itself. Maryland’s share is approximately $4.8 million, including funds for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and the Baltimore area.

Maryland Senators Chris Van Hollen (D) and Ben Cardin (D) said in a joint statement the FTA is withholding the funds, not cutting them, and would restore the funding once the commission is in place. Still, they said the move may do more harm than good when it comes to transit safety.

“Maryland, Virginia and D.C. must move faster to finalize the Metro Safety Commission. But we disagree strongly with FTA’s decision to hold hostage critical transportation needs across Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, particularly in areas that are far from Metro’s service zone. Cutting off resources for projects midstream will affect safety and increase overall costs, which is exactly the opposite of what FTA should be trying to accomplish,” the senators said. “We understand that a deadline has been missed, but we urge the FTA to rethink this course of action in the name of safety and stability of our regional transportation system.”

Back at the hearing, although Jones raised concerns about specific language in the bill, he said the union needs the WMATA safety commission, in light of several deaths to both riders and workers in the last decade.

“This commission is especially important to our union after the past 11 years, where we have seen 21 fatalities on the Metro system,” Jones said. “This includes ten of our members and eleven riders, along with dozens of serious injuries, including several incidents last month.”

Emily Blackner contributed to this report.

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