Policy

DC Metro Gets More Bad News

House Republicans plan no increase in funding for transit system beset by rail safety problems

Republicans on a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee said Metro officials have not prioritized the maintenance of the Washington's public transit system. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Metro can't look to Congress for near-term funding help as the Washington transit system battles long-standing operational and safety problems, at least until it can demonstrate it’s effectively using the federal money it already receives, Republicans said Tuesday.

Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, chairman of the Highways and Transit subcommittee, said at a hearing that Metro has failed for decades to transition from prioritizing the building of its rail system to safely maintaining it.

The sprawling transit system has been plagued by a series of mechanical, operational and managerial shortcomings.

Graves pointed specifically to recent incidents like the one in January 2015 when smoke from an electrical malfunction filed a tunnel at the busy L’Enfant Plaza station, killing a passenger, and an unplanned all-day shutdown of the system in March as the results of those failures at the agency.

Despite pleas from Democrats on the subcommittee and among the Maryland and Virginia delegations that Metro is underfunded, Republicans told the transit system's general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, that the federal government wouldn't provide more than the $150 million per year the transit agency already receives.

Institutional culture that has not prioritized safety, and failing to communicate with stakeholders has caused more problems than funding levels, they said.

What You Missed: House Hearing on Metro Safety and Reliability

[ Metro Set to Go Under Congressional Microscope, Again ]

“The federal government has invested billions in Metro, yet the system is not safe and is not reliable,” Graves said. “Congress cannot legislate communication or buy (Metro) a safety culture.”

40-year-old Metro is the nation's second-busiest subway line, moving more than 700,000 people daily through Washington and the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Congressional outlays in recent years have been a political flashpoint. 

Funding for Metro operations comes from fare and advertising revenue as well as contributions from D.C. and the cities and counties in each state. The federal government kicks in about half of the capital expenses. Metro has 91 stations and 117 miles of track.

Wiedefeld said the agency didn't necessarily need more federal dollars, but urged the lawmakers to provide a more reliable source of funding year over year, saying maintenance needs would continue after Metro concludes its intensive repair plan over the next nine months.

[ Metro Chief To Congress: I’ll Blame You Next Time ]

Full committee ranking Democrat Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon acknowledged that Metro was dealing with management issues, but said Congress had also failed to properly fund the agency, despite increases included in highways and infrastructure legislation in recent years.

“We’re killing people in a transit system with a combination of budgetary pressures and management issues,” he said. “We cannot ignore the need for additional investment. … We cannot ignore the thousand-pound gorilla in the room.”

But Republicans were steadfast in declaring any call for increased federal Metro funding a non-starter.

Despite taking more federal funds than any metropolitan transit system outside of New York and Chicago, Washington’s rail system’s performance is well under par, Virginia GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock said after the hearing.

Praising Wiedefeld’s inclination to “shake things up,” she said he should be allowed to implement his changes at existing funding levels before Congress considered raising its contribution.

“We need to get our performance above average and then look at the costs overall, look at the dedicated funding,” she said.

[ Metro Releases Final Plan on Repairs to Rail System ]

Failing significant improvement in Metro’s performance, Rep. John L. Mica threatened to introduce a bill next year to privatize the system. 

But even the Florida Republican had kind words for Wiedefeld, whom members widely praised for his actions to reform Metro since taking the reins at the agency in November.

Mica jokingly gave Wiedefeld an award for firing 20 managers last week, saying it showed his dedication to improving operations and making the agency more accountable.

[ How Capitol Hill Will Be Affected by Metro Repairs ]

Comstock and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told reporters following Tuesday’s hearing, however, that Metro failed in its promise to improve accountability by not immediately disclosing a reported sexual assault on the Red Line last month.

“All Metro has now is General Manager Wiedefeld’s credibility,” Norton said.

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