Lawmakers ramp up their scrutiny of District's troubled, aging Metro system

Congress is ramping up its oversight of Metro as Washington D.C. mass transit riders brace for a possible fare hike and transit officials embark to make long overdue safety changes while fighting a multi-million dollar budget shortfall.

President Barack Obama has requested $150 million in the 2011 fiscal year budget to continue bailing out the aged Metro system, with most of the money going to buy new rail cars, modernize existing equipment and improve the system’s safety features. 

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But the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development, and related agencies is reluctant to hand over a blank check to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) without highly scrutinizing the steps it’s taking, especially in the wake of a scathing audit by the Federal Transportation Agency (FTA) that recently found Metro to have persistent and systemic problems.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a panel member who is one of Metro’s fiercest critics, said that the committee is not going to withhold the money in this year’s budget, but also said that there needs to be real accountability and safety reforms.

“We’ve been very impatient with Metro,” she said last week at a subcommittee hearing with Metro officials. “We don’t want any more promises, memos, or laundry lists. We need action on safety.

“I think we have to be insistent on certain kinds of conditions and not give a blank check.”

Over the past year 13 people have been killed in four separate Metro accidents, which has brought the agency heavy criticism over its aging cars and overall lack of safety mechanisms.

Metro trains make more than 1.2 million trips during each workday, making it the second largest heavy rail system in the country.

Milkulski has put forward a bill that would give the federal government the authority to regulate and oversee the safety standards and practices of subway systems throughout the country.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), who supports Mikulski’s measure, said that during peak travel times, 40 percent of Metro’s passengers are federal employees, meaning Congress has a visceral responsibility to address the system’s safety issues.

The $150 million for WMATA in Obama’s budget is the annual installment of a larger federal commitment of $1.5 billion over a 10-year period, ending in 2018.

Peter Benjamin, the chairman of WMATA, says that those funds are enough to get the Metro system up to speed with “critically necessary” safety and repair steps, but after they are completed, there won’t be any money left over to carry out an expansion of the city’s mass transit services.

All of this is also combined with Metro’s attempts to close a $189 million budget shortfall. Proposals include $8 million in service cuts and $30 million in borrowed funds from the capital budget dedicated to preventive maintenance issues.

As a result, city mass transit commuters are likely going to face yet another fare hike in the coming months. The proposed hike would send peak prices for rail passengers from $1.65 to $1.90 and bus fares would shoot from $1.25 to $1.50.

Metro’s full board is expected to meet to discuss the fare increase on Thursday.