For the past several months, the federal government has repeatedly criticized the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for safety lapses and poor management. WMATA is broken and it deserves this criticism. But so does the federal government. The Department of Homeland Security could have interceded years ago and stopped WMATA from imploding into the mess we have today. But it didn't and Washingtonians, Virginians, and Marylanders who ride WMATA everyday deserve an explanation.
Eight years ago, I was serving as the senior counsel on the House Homeland Security Committee. In this role, I led negotiations on the mass transit sections of the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 (9/11 Act). The London and Madrid attacks killed hundreds and we were concerned about terrorist attacks on U.S. mass transit systems. Little did we know that these requirements would expose WMATA safety flaws and a lack of proper oversight by DHS.
The 9/11 Act requires public transportation agencies that are a high risk for terrorism to develop comprehensive security plans. Not surprisingly, WMATA meets this definition. Washington, DC is the capital of the United States and terrorists have already used airplanes to harm our city and our residents. Clearly, WMATA needed a security plan.
To make it easier for mass transit systems to understand what Congress wanted in the security plans, we listed out the requirements. Security plans are supposed to include procedures for appropriate interactions with state and local law enforcement agencies and emergency responders. Check. Specific evacuation and passenger communication plans are also mentioned. Check. Lastly, Congress mandates DHS' review of WMATA's security plan and requires WMATA to update its security plan, as appropriate. Check.
But then we get to the January 12 accident. WMATA and first responders failed to properly communicate with one another on scene and at the Rail Control Center. Passengers were also left stranded in metro cars that rapidly filled with smoke. So who in DHS reviewed WMATA's security plan and told them that it was sufficient? That's the million dollar question and one that needs to be answered immediately.
We know that WMATA completed a security plan because one is required in order to receive DHS mass transit security grants. In 2014 as in years past, DHS specifically tasked applicants with providing the "type of assessment(s) . . .being used as a basis to identify the vulnerabilities, and when/where were they conducted." In addition, applicants were also asked to "list the assessment(s), what entity conducted them (owner/operator, DHS, including approved sub-contractors), and when they were conducted." WMATA gave DHS the required information and then DHS awarded WMATA $7,179,016.00 in fiscal year 2014 grant funds. Unfortunately, no one in DHS appears to have examined whether the information WMATA provided met the standards established by Congress eight years ago.
The good news is that at least one part of the federal government recognizes WMATA's flaws. The U.S. Department of Transportation released a report earlier this summer that identifies 78 safety fixes. In addition, Secretary of Transportation Foxx personally chastised Virginia Governor McAuliffe, Maryland Lieutenant Governor Rutherford, and the DC mayor last month for failing to take the necessary steps to fix the system. Sadly, there is no indication that Secretary Foxx yelled at Secretary of Homeland Security Johnson for failing to do his job.
When Congress returns in September, it's my hope that House and Senate members hold oversight hearings to examine DHS' failure to address WMATA glaring security and safety gaps. Hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians, Virginians, and Marylanders use WMATA on a daily basis and its clearly not safe, nor secure.
Krepp is a former House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee senior counsel, former Obama administration political appointee, and current Washington, DC Advisory Neighborhood commissioner.