Can the Feds Get Washington’s Metro Right?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

A Metro trains stops at the Capitol South station on Friday, May 6, 2016. 

The D.C. Metro system is in crisis, and a power struggle between federal agencies fighting for the right to oversee safety isn’t helping.

Washington Area Metro Transit Authority General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s decision to shut down portions of the system for massive repairs comes in the wake of continued infighting between federal agencies over which one of them should bring the hammer down on the hapless, accident-prone subway system. The partial shutdown will slow train travel so that work crews may expedite repairs after a troubling series of fires and other incidents.

The imbroglio has its origins, in part, in the inability of the Obama administration and its predecessors to persuade Republicans on Capitol Hill to step up and provide more funding for the authority’s long-overdue maintenance and repairs. Metro, like most of the country’s big-city transit agencies, has a lengthy roster of infrastructure issues that have not been addressed because the dollars simply aren’t there.

Funding constraints have undoubtedly played a role in Metro’s problems and have led to vicious Capitol Hill shouting matches between Metro officials and House Republicans, who have expressed little empathy for city dwellers in general and for denizens of the capital region in particular. But the bigger issue for Metro is what a National Transportation Safety Board accident summary called “a lack of a safety culture” within the agency, a problem that goes way beyond funding shortfalls.

Wiedefeld’s announcement comes on the heels of an NTSB report on a January 2015 accident that killed one woman and injured 91 people—the 13th Metro accident that the NTSB has investigated since the subway system opened in 1976. The NTSB found that Metro has displayed a breathtaking inability to institute basic safety protocols and has ignored dozens of the agency’s safety recommendations for years.

NTSB member Robert L. Sumwalt flayed Metro at the Tuesday NTSB meeting to review the accident report. He argued that the agency had learned next to nothing since a 2009 crash that killed nine people. “To me, this shows that WMATA, historically speaking, has had a severe learning disability,” he said. “Quite simply, they have not been willing to learn from prior events. … Learning disabilities are tragic in children, but they are fatal in organizations. And literally that is true in this case.”  

Federal infighting is at the root of some of Metro’s problems. NTSB officials have insisted with unusual tenacity that of the two federal agencies that oversee Metro—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA)—the railroad agency is the best-equipped to address the D.C. subway system’s chronic safety issues. That’s because the FRA has tougher enforcement tools, NTSB officials have said. But federal Transportation Department officials do not necessarily agree. In response to the NTSB’s criticisms, one transportation department spokesman told Politico that the department can’t just “flip a switch” and have the FRA move in to take over.

The root of the problem is a regulatory quirk: Technically, the FRA only oversees commuter rail networks like the Virginia Railway Express, which serves Northern Virginia and Washington, and passenger rail networks like Amtrak—not subway systems like Metro. But unlike the FTA, the railroad agency may impose fines and other penalties on transportation systems that fail to meet federal safety regulations. In 2015, the railroad agency announced that its enhanced safety enforcement measures had produced the agency’s highest-ever civil penalty collection rate.

This inter-agency squabbling is due in part to the Obama administration’s lack of sway on Capitol Hill. With just a few months left to go on the Obama administration’s watch, lame-duck Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has lacked the political will to lobby federal lawmakers to press forward with the statutory changes that would be required to put railroad officials in charge of oversight.

Undoubtedly anticipating that NTSB was on track to deliver another Metro smack-down, Foxx delivered a preemptive strike last week, ousting three members of Metro’s often-vilified board of directors and replacing them with former federal transportation officials from the NTSB, the federal transit agency, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Meanwhile, state and local leaders in the District, Maryland, and Virginia have not had their finest hour when it comes to safety oversight. Riders continue to flee the system in an understandable quest for self preservation, prompting The Washington Post to editorialize Tuesday that “there has been nothing but torpor from Metro’s three local stakeholders” on safety matters. Nevertheless, Maryland, Virginia, and District government officials have all taken steps in recent days to back up Wiedefeld during what promises to be a difficult period for public transportation in the region.

A creaky transit system prone to fires and derailments undermines public confidence in mass transit not just in Washington but nationwide. While they may not share Metro’s lax safety culture, many aging transit systems in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere confront similar infrastructure problems following decades of disinvestment.

The NTSB has emerged as a key ally in Wieldefeld’s fix-and-restore confidence campaign. It remains to be seen whether the NTSB’s refusal to back down over Metro’s serious safety problems will be enough to change behavior at the transit authority itself and to restore some faith in both the system and in federal oversight regimes.

Washington-area residents have been understandably skeptical of Metro’s repair and reform promises, which strike many as a look-here-not-there public relations gambit designed to quell complaints and allay fears. Having the feds on the scene is not a panacea, as the Environmental Protection Agency’s actions in the Flint water poisoning debacle illustrate. All the more reason to install the right group of federal officials on the tracks alongside Metro workers to make sure that they finally get the job done right.

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