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House lawmakers want big changes to Washington's Metro board

 House lawmakers want big changes to Washington's Metro board
© Anne Wernikoff

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) is leading a push in the House to overhaul the board that oversees the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) as the beleaguered transit agency scrambles to address ongoing safety issues.

Delaney is introducing legislation this week that would require the next three federal appointments to the authority's board of directors to be either a certified transit, management or financial expert. The standard would apply to both new appointees and those renewing their terms.

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The board has 16 members, with Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government each appointing four of them.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) has also signaled she will sign on to the bill.

“Metro’s failures are stark, the stakes could not be higher and the need for reform is crystal clear,” Delaney said in a statement. “This legislation doesn’t remove the ability of local jurisdictions to choose their Board representatives, but it does ensure a baseline level of qualifications.”

Washington’s Metrorail system — the second busiest in the nation — has come under fire for a series of high-profile safety lapses. Officials shut down the entire system last month for emergency inspections and repairs, but problems and rail disruptions still persist.

Much of the scrutiny has centered around management and its failure to implement critical safety recommendations. General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld recently hired a new chief safety chief and is expected to unveil a maintenance plan in the coming weeks.

During a hearing on Metro safety earlier this month, Delaney agreed that mismanagement and chronic underfunding have both contributed to the system’s ongoing problems.

But Delaney said WMATA’s board also shares some of the responsibility. The body determines agency policy and provides oversight of transit funding, operation and expansion.

“You can only blame management for so long,” he said at the hearing. “If this was any other enterprise other than Metro, the board would have been dismissed.”

“One of the biggest embarrassments you can have in this town is to have been on this board in the last 10 years,” he added.

Delaney questioned whether Metro’s board members are actually qualified or if they are just political appointments.

Outspoken Board Chairman Jack Evans admitted that some members come to the board without experience. He also said many remain unclear about what their job is and believes there are too many people serving on the body.

“That’s why you need a good board,” Delaney said. ‘”A good board knows what their job is.”

Although Delaney’s proposal sounds like a swift solution to one aspect of the massive problem, Evans pointed out that it might not be so simple.

“You’re point is absolutely well taken,” Evans said. “But the problem is, you have four jurisdictions and nobody’s willing to give up anything, so anytime we bring up this idea of changing the board, everybody backs away from it.”