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On Wednesday afternoon, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is scheduled to testify before Congress and will discuss concrete next steps for improving the transit agency’s rail-inspection procedures.
A copy of Wiedefeld’s prepared remarks to a joint hearing of two House of Representatives subcommittees shows that he will generally reiterate his commitment to safety. But Wiedefeld, appointed to lead the region’s busiest commuter system late last year, will also hone in on ways he hopes to boost the effectiveness of rail maintenance and emergency responses. The hearing follows the general manager’s board-backed decision to close Metrorail completely for a day in March as well as the release of findings that emerged from power inspections conducted during the closure. Metro identified 27 high-priority defects at the time.
“Our current approach to dealing with these issues, lurching from crisis to crisis, is not working, and we need a plan going forward to come at these issues more holistically,” Wiedefeld’s testimony reads. “We are working to prepare that plan and will present it to you and the public in the next four to six weeks.” (The general manager also gave that time frame at the end of March, when long-term rail closures were floated.)
According to the prepared remarks, Metro is conducting a “thorough review” of its response to the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident that occurred in January 2015. (“Basically,” Wiedefeld will say, “I want to know how this could have happened again just 14 months later.”) It is also reviewing the March fire at the McPherson Square station that preceded the daylong Metrorail closure, with an eye toward whether its Rail Operations Control Center and emergency responders followed protocol. Lastly, Metro will examine how to change its “inspection and maintenance of power systems.” “I have found systemic issues with regard to track, power, and car maintenance, as well as stations, which must be defined and addressed,” Wiedefeld’s remarks note.
Congressmembers also anticipate to hear from Carolyn Flowers, a senior advisor at the Federal Transit Administration, Christopher Hart, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Jack Evans, chair of Metro’s board and Ward 2 D.C. councilmember. A copy of Evans’ testimony reveals that he intends to argue—as he has in recent weeks—for a “dedicated funding source” of $1 billion annually for the agency.
“More relevant to today’s hearing, the federal government, an equal partner in governing the system with four board members, should contribute $300 million per year to the operating budget just like D.C., Maryland, and Virginia,” Evans plans to say to officials. “They paid two-thirds of the cost to build the system and benefit more than most from an efficient transit system for their workers in the region. These additional funds are necessary to operate the system safely. However, money alone doesn’t fix a problem.”
The House subcommittees holding the hearing are both chaired by and comprised mostly of Republicans: the subcommittee on transportation and public assets and the subcommittee on government operations. Only the latter features representatives from the region served by Metro: Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, both Democrats who have publicly expressed the need to reform the transit system. Other House members will likely press Wiedefeld and Evans on the need for additional funding or taxes given the fact that rail ridership and reliability have declined continuously in recent years. (Members may also ask them about a top-to-bottom study of Metro by McKinsey made public on Tuesday.)
Still, it’s indisputable that Metro is a way of getting around for Cherry Blossom tourists and residents alike.
“The Washington Metro was once the gold standard for public transit, but in recent years has become synonymous with poor service, delays, and rampant safety concerns,” Government Operations Subcommittee Chair Mark Meadows is expected to say in his opening remarks. “The D.C. Metro system transports nearly 200 million riders annually—these are not only the hardworking citizens of the District, but people from across the country that come here to visit America’s treasured monuments. The purpose of this hearing is to ensure that the individuals who ride the D.C. Metro are as safe as possible.”
The hearing is set to begin at 2 p.m.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery