Metro to the Feds: Okay, already!
HAVING TAKEN control of safety oversight of Metro’s rail operations — the first such takeover in the history of a U.S. public transit agency — federal transportation officials have now taken to hectoring and scolding their new charge, with mounting frustration. Metro, along with its controlling jurisdictions, reacts like a teenager being told to pick up her room, vacillating between ignoring instructions, pleading for more time and shouting the equivalent of “Okay, already!”
If only the stakes were so small.
The task in this case is not a room that needs tidying, but the establishment of an oversight body to ensure safety on a subway system that handles 700,000 passengers on weekdays. Incredibly, having failed to provide such a mechanism to do the job effectively, Metro — meaning Virginia, Maryland and the District, which run the show — now seems in no particular hurry to do so.
In the meantime, the subway system continues to fall apart. Daily breakdowns and delays are routine. Trains run red-light signals and come face-to-face with other trains. A years-long effort to have contractors provide dependable wireless coverage in train tunnels fails, prompting Metro to reach into its own pocket. Deadlines slip by on action plans to fix failing rail safety systems, triggering hair-pulling by federal regulators. And for the first time in at least 20 years, a passenger is shot in the subway system, in the course of a robbery last Tuesday.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, ridership is declining, defying projections and upsetting revenue forecasts. Would-be passengers, their options increasing thanks to bike lanes, telecommuting, ride-sharing services and other factors, are searching for ways to avoid riding Metro if at all possible.
The most galling of the recent lapses is the lack of urgency displayed by Metro’s three controlling jurisdictions, which have been on notice for years that they need to establish a more muscular safety oversight commission. Finally, acting on an urgent recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Department of Transportation stepped in late last year and took control of the oversight function at Metro itself. At the same time, federal officials issued clear instructions to officials in the District, Virginia and Maryland thatthe new arrangement — whereby the Federal Transit Administration assumed the responsibility — was temporary.
But rather than taking the Feds’ takeover as a wake-up call, local officials hit the snooze button. Instead of moving quickly to formulate legislation to create Metro’s oversight commission, they let it be known that it was really awfully complicated and would try to get to it in 2017 — maybe.
Now Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who’s clearly had enough of Metro’s shenanigans, is threatening to withhold more than $7 million in regional transportation subsidies unless the three jurisdictions get on the stick. And who can blame him? It’s fair to wonder if even that stick will be adequate to shake state and local officials’ habitual complacency about Metro’s steady deterioration.
Washington DC Metro rail system map