Problems in DC Metro Take Center Stage in House Panel

WASHINGTON (CN) — In the wake of a train collision two weeks ago, passenger safety concerns and transparency were the focus of questions from House lawmakers Tuesday during a hearing on Washington, D.C.’s public transit system.

Congressman Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA, has taken some steps to address safety issues and improve transparency, including participating in the forming of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission. WMSC, which was certified in March, serves as an oversight organization for the train system and is an independent agency.

During Tuesday’s hearing before the House Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, WMSC CEO David Mayer provided brief details of the Oct. 7 crash, saying no one was injured and the investigation into the incident is ongoing.

Mayer said one car had been stationary while one was moving at about 11 mph, and the agency believes a conductor had received a command to stop and stay in place. Neither car held passengers.

The incident shows the organization’s commitment to participating in an investigative process and expanded safety oversight, he said.

“It also highlights our commitment to transparency,” Mayer testified. “In the hours and days after the incident, we shared with the public what we knew almost as soon as we knew it. This effort included updates and photos, and it is our intent to continue that level of transparency on this and future efforts.”

Oversight is often hindered by funding restrictions, said Connolly, chairman of the subcommittee.

Connolly and other members have introduced a bill – the Metro Accountability and Investment Act – that will reauthorize $150 million in annual capital funding from a pool of state, local and federal sources for the next decade. In addition, another $50 million would be provided for WMATA’s operating costs, with $10 million going toward its inspector general’s office, he said.

Geoffrey Cherrington, the transit system’s inspector general, said while his office is not a federal internal watchdog, he has modeled it as closely as possible to one. But he said the office lacks investigatory tools available to federal inspector generals, which prevents the use of special monitoring and surveillance methods.

Transparency in those investigations was a chief concern Tuesday for lawmakers who cited WMATA’s lack of communication when Washington, D.C. Councilman Jack Evans was accused of ethics violations earlier this year. Evans chaired the WMATA board but was forced to step down.

Paul Smedberg, who replaced Evans as chairman of WMATA’s board, testified that the agency had taken strides to correct its code of ethics to improve its transparency.

Smedberg said that under the changes, reports of violations of the code or conflicts of interests are now referred to the WMATA inspector general and the board’s determination of whether a violation occurred will be considered in public session.

Paul Wiedefeld, general manager and CEO of WMATA, testified briefly on improvements being made to the system, including the new availability of public Wi-Fi at all 91 Metro stations. In addition, he said on-time performance within the system during rush-hour trips is the highest percentage it has been in seven years, at 88 to 92%.

Wiedefeld also said that the current fiscal year budget for the transit system focused on customer safety, which is at the forefront of its priorities.

“One of the biggest things that we did as an agency, from the ground up, was that we put safety above service and believed it. And so, what you’ve seen play out is that we make decisions based on that first,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, we had gotten to a point where we had lost the credibility in the community and we had to focus on rebuilding that credibility by doing what we said we were going to do.”

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