Opinion

Getting Metro Safety Back on Track

New commission will be empowered to adopt tough safety rules

Democratic lawmakers from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia are calling for Congress to approve the Metro Safety Commission promptly. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

BY REP. STENY H. HOYER, SENS. BENJAMIN L. CARDIN, MARK WARNER, TIM KAINE AND CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON, REPS. JOHN SARBANES, GERALD E. CONNOLLY, JOHN DELANEY, DONALD S. BEYER JR., ANTHONY G. BROWN AND JAMIE RASKIN

The Washington Metro system has its good days and its bad ones. On its best, it carries hundreds of thousands of commuters and visitors around our metro area. On its worst, maintenance and safety issues have caused enraging delays and even heartbreaking accidents. The people living in our region and those visiting our nation’s capital deserve to know that when they get on Metro they will arrive at their destinations safely.

That’s why we introduced legislation last week to establish a new Metro Safety Commission, putting Metro on a path to safer operations. And today, we are sending a letter to the Government Accountability Office, asking them to analyze the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s funding and governance structure and issue recommendations for changes. WMATA is distinct among transit agencies in that it is governed by four separate entities, creating unique challenges for collective action on fundamental questions such as how to fund the system. A GAO deep-dive on these questions could yield valuable and objective insight.

Our delegation worked to pass legislation to reform transit safety oversight after a 2009 tragedy on the Red Line caused nine deaths. In 2015, it became obvious that serious problems still persisted when an Alexandria woman died in a tunnel near L’Enfant Plaza due to what most agree were preventable mistakes. Several subsequent nonfatal incidents shed further light on how deep WMATA’s safety problems ran. They were so severe that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration took the unprecedented step of seizing control of WMATA safety oversight due to the total inadequacy of its existing safety body. The FTA made it clear that it would only return control when it was satisfied that a functional safety watchdog was in place. On Feb. 10, 2017, the FTA went a step further by withholding 5 percent of the federal transit funds apportioned to Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia until the new safety commission was certified.

The Virginia and Maryland general assemblies and the D.C. Council have now agreed on the makeup of such a body and are preparing to pass identical legislation to establish it. With the legislation we just introduced, Congress is taking an important step toward doing its part. This new Metro Safety Commission will be empowered to adopt tough safety rules and will be granted enforcement teeth, such as an authority to impose fines, issue subpoenas, and direct additional funding toward safety priorities. But two other Metro issues are critical and require careful long-term thinking.

First, Metro has considerably more maintenance needs than it has dollars to spend on them. This is not only a symptom of America’s infrastructure backlog but also a consequence of past budget fights, regional decisions funding maintenance inadequately, and the federal government’s failure to pay Metro-related expenses. In 2008, WMATA received a down payment to dig out of its budget hole when Congress authorized $1.5 billion over ten years, contingent on state matches. With only two years remaining on a ten year commitment, we need to be looking to the future.

Second, critical to negotiating a new funding agreement will be demonstrating improvements not only to safety but to Metro’s governance. After the L’Enfant tragedy, it took nearly a year for the WMATA board of directors to hire a new chief executive. Board meetings have been marked by dysfunction, personal antipathy, and a worrying inability by some members to balance what’s best for the jurisdictions they represent and what’s best for WMATA as a whole. This must change.

We are also aware of other critical issues — long-term dedicated funding, pension liabilities, labor policy, and other challenges. But the first decisive action required is for Congress to give its prompt approval of the Metro Safety Commission. Then, we will need to build support for a funding and governance package that everyone can get behind. We must learn from the past by starting this painstaking work now, not two years from now, when funding is about to run out. We are committed to fixing these problems and will not quit until they are addressed with the seriousness they deserve.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer is the House minority whip and is currently in his 18th full term representing Maryland’s 5th District.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin is a two-term Democrat representing Maryland. He previously served  10 terms in the House.

Sen. Mark Warner is a two-term Democrat representing Virginia. He previously served as the commonwealth’s governor.

Sen. Tim Kaine is a Democrat in his first term representing Virginia. He previously served as the commonwealth’s governor and lieutenant governor, and was the 2016 Democratic nominee for vice president.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen is a Democrat in his first term representing Maryland. He previously served seven terms in the House.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton is a 14-term Democrat representing the District of Columbia.

Rep. John Sarbanes is a six-term Democrat representing Maryland’s 3rd District.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly is a five-term Democrat representing Virginia’s 11th District.

Rep. John Delaney is a three-term Democrat representing Maryland’s 6th District.

Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. is a two-term Democrat representing Virginia’s 8th District. He previously served two terms as the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor.

Rep. Anthony G. Brown is a freshman Democrat representing Maryland’s 4th District. He previously served two terms as the state’s lieutenant governor.

Rep. Jamie Raskin is a freshman Democrat representing Maryland’s 8th District.

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