Under New Management, House Panel Scrutinizes Metro Safety Record
It seemed fitting Wednesday that the first House Appropriations subcommittee hearing to take place since Del. Ben Barnes (D) took over from longtime Chair Maggie McIntosh (D) focused on safety problems at the Washington, D.C.-area Metro system.
The state of Maryland invests $750 million annually in the regional transit system, but it was still something of a distant concept to McIntosh, a 30-year lawmaker from Baltimore City who held the Appropriations gavel for the last eight years. Now, Barnes, a Prince George’s Countian who has the College Park Metro station in his district, has taken over the committee.
“All politics is local and I do have a Green Line station in my district, as well as thousands of constituents who commute by transit every day,” Barnes said at the beginning of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment hearing.
Not that Appropriations has left the transit agency alone all these years. The current chair of the subcommittee on transportation Del. Marc Korman (D) of Montgomery County, has a few Red Line stations in his district. And it was lawmakers from Montgomery and Prince George’s who had sharp questions for Metro officials during Wednesday’s hearing.
The agency has seen a string of safety scares over the last few years — including a Blue Line train derailment last fall that forced Metro officials to pull their relatively new, 7000-series rail cars off the tracks. That has led to service delays system-wide, just when Metro is struggling to rebound from lost ridership and revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
Metro officials insisted that things are getting better on the safety front. Testifying at the virtual hearing were the chair of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Paul Smedberg; the acting general manager of Metro, Andy Off, who will yield the job to an agency newcomer, Randy Clarke, during the summer, and Theresa Impastato, Metro’s chief safety officer. Also speaking was the chair of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, an independent agency with oversight of Metro safety systems, Dave Mayer.
Several of the speakers said they detect a “culture change” on safety within Metro, and that not all service and operations enhancements are readily apparent.
“It can be difficult to know that significant improvements have taken place at Metro,” Smedberg said.
But the concerns go beyond the problems with the 7000-series rail cars, which will slowly be introduced back into the fleet’s rotation in a matter of weeks. There have also been breakdowns in safety management systems, the transit officials conceded. Several train operators were late in being recertified, and there have been “an alarming number of near-misses,” Impastato said, involving maintenance workers who came uncomfortably close to being electrocuted by the transit system’s third rail.
Some of the safety problems have been exacerbated by the agency’s limitations during COVID-19, but are not directly attributable to them, officials said.
The Metro leaders discussed upgrades in technology, changes in internal communication, maintenance schedules for older train cars, and new troubleshooting regimes designed to make the system safer. But lawmakers, led by Korman, Del. Jazz Lewis (D) of Prince George’s, and Del. Jared Solomon (D) of Montgomery, all expressed skepticism about the agency’s progress. Solomon listed several audits dating back to 2015 questioning Metro safety practices.
“This is year after year after year,” he said.
Lewis, who has Blue Line, Orange Line, and Green Line stops in his district, noted that several stations in Prince George’s County are closed for repairs and upgrading just at the height of the summer tourist season, at a time when service in the county is already being scaled back.
“It seems like we’re waiting longer for the transit, more than others, and not being able to use the train,” he said.
As the 90-minute hearing was winding down, Korman pointedly asked Smedberg what other challenges the agency is facing besides the added scrutiny over safety. Smedberg replied that there is “a lot of stress” on the transit system, with different jurisdictions contributing different amounts of money to its operations, and not all funding guaranteed year after year.
“Long-term, we’re going to have to have a serious discussion about the financial model — is it sustainable?” he said. “How are we going to fund WMATA going forward?”
Korman said he appreciated the efforts of the Metro officials present to improve the system, but conceded that he, like his colleagues on the subcommittee, remained a skeptic.
“The suggestion from some of you is that we’ve turned a corner,” he said. “But if we’ve turned a corner, we’ve run into a wall. And I don’t know why that is.”