Metro officials clash with lawmakers over funding, safety

Metro officials clash with lawmakers over funding, safety
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A congressional hearing on Washington’s Metrorail system grew heated on Wednesday as lawmakers and officials clashed over whether the beleaguered transit agency should be granted more federal funding in light of its rampant safety and oversight issues.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board Chairman Jack Evans pleaded with House members to kick in $300 million per year for Metro’s operating budget. The federal government currently only contributes to the agency’s capital budget, while D.C., Maryland and Virginia make up the largest sources of its $1.8 billion operating budget.

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“You have to help us, otherwise we can’t survive,” Evans said during an Oversight and Government Reform joint subcommittee hearing. “All I’m asking you for is $300 million, which is your fair share, given the fact that we transport 50 percent of your workforce every day.”

But Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Transportation and Public Assets subcommittee, flatly rejected his plea, calling Metro “the most screwed-up mess I’ve ever seen in business or government.”

“I’m not going to bail you out,” he said. “You sure as heck aren’t going to get it out of my folks."

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Evans’s request would give WMATA the most expensive operating budget in the country.

“What would justify that?” Meadows asked.

“We’re the second-largest transit system in America,” Evans responded. “This has become an embarrassment in the nation’s capital, and we are all in this together."

Evans also advocated for a regional funding source for the transit agency but acknowledged it could be difficult to get the three areas with jurisdiction to agree on a way to produce a dedicated funding stream.

The hearing comes in the wake of an unprecedented, 29-hour shutdown of the entire transit system last month for emergency inspections following an earlier cable fire near the McPherson Square stop. That incident was similar to a January 2015 tunnel fire near L’Enfant Plaza, during which one passenger died from smoke inhalation.

The emergency inspections identified 27 defects that were immediately repaired and more than 300 causes for “non-emergency” repairs, which are now underway.

Democratic lawmakers maintain that Metro underfunding is what contributed to the safety problems in the first place, largely agreeing with Evans that the federal government should pitch in its fair share.

“Do you want [riders] to be safe? Do you want this to be reliable? Or do you just want to leave here like we did in 2005 and do nothing?” Evans said. “Next time something happens, I’m blaming it on you guys. We need your help.”

Meadows shot back: “How can you blame us? You’re the one making the decisions."

One of Metro’s actions that came under fire Wednesday was how slowly the agency has implemented critical safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board following the deadly L’Enfant Plaza incident.

The NTSB indentified numerous instances last year where Metro cable connector assemblies were missing sleeves, which can cause electrical problems and fires. The board recommended in June 2015 that Metro move quickly to install them.

But Metro general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld testified Wednesday that only 65 percent of the connector sleeves have been installed thus far. He emphasized that the recommendation was only one of many issues that the agency is attempting to address.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle blasted Metro for its lack of safety oversight and demanded a shakeup within the agency.

“Those responsible for allowing these issues to languish should step down or be removed,” Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHouse to hold public impeachment hearings next week House Democrats launch process to replace Cummings on Oversight panel The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP MORE (D-Va.) said.

“You need to get in there and fire people and get that place in order,” Mica agreed.

Metro hired a new chief safety officer from New York’s transit agency this week.

But Wiedefeld — who has only been in the role since November — is expected to unveil a more comprehensive plan in the coming weeks for addressing ongoing safety problems and restoring rider confidence.

Near the end of the hearing, Wiedefeld acknowledged that the agency has not created a culture of promoting safety and service.

“Part of fixing a problem is recognizing that you have one,” Meadows said. “Thank you for your candor and your honesty."