Policy

Congress Caught Unaware of Metro Shutdown

Local rail suspended for service-wide inspection

Connolly and other members who represent large swaths of the federal workforce are trying to figure out how to get people to work on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Members of Congress didn't seem to get a heads-up about Wednesday's shutdown of the D.C. Metro rail system for an emergency safety inspection, with some learning about it as they went to vote late Tuesday.  

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who sleeps in his office when in town, was surprised to learn of the decision by the regional transportation agency that oversees Metro following a fire in a subway tunnel that snarled the morning rush for thousands of commuters on Monday.  

McCarthy heard the news from reporters in the Speaker's Lobby.  

Rep. Gerry Connolly was handed a note from his staffer on the floor that read, "Urgent, please look for (M)etro email," and his fellow Virginia Democrat, Don Beyer, said he learned of the shutdown from Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, also from Virginia.  

Connolly described the news as a "gut-punch" for the more than 700,000 customers -- including federal workers and other commuters -- who ride the rail system daily. The second-busiest in the nation, the Metro subway line has been beset by service, mechanical and other setbacks that have raised safety issues and called into question management of the system.  

"It raises real questions," Connolly told reporters. "How bad was the damage? How compromised was public safety? Is this going to be the new routine -- so when something major happens, you’re going to shut down the system? What kind of advanced notice does Metro think it’s obligated to provide to this region, which relies heavily on Metro?"  

Connolly said he had yet to speak with Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.  

"I won’t second-guess his judgment but I have a lot of questions of my own,” said Connolly.  

The Office of Personnel Management announced late Tuesday that the government would be open, but that workers could take the day off or work from home, if necessary.  

A constituent of Beyer’s died after being trapped in a smoke-filled Metro train in January 2015, an incident that prompted a series of congressional hearings. Beyer said on Tuesday that Congress should continue to exercise oversight over the transit system.  

“We have to keep the pressure on Paul Wiedefeld to keep going down his checklist in making this thing safe,” said Beyer.  

Both Beyer and Connolly were part of the regional delegation that fought proposed federal funding cuts to Metro last year. Republicans attempted to halve the annual $150 million federal contribution to Metro, but the funding was ultimately restored in the year-end spending package.  

“It could,” Connolly said of the shutdown affecting the conversation about Metro funding. “In the current climate, who knows.”  

Beyer said he expected the delegation will once again have to push for full funding for Metro.  

“The irony is that we don’t need less federal funding, we need more. Obviously the psychological impact on Congress is to push things down. Like, ‘Gosh if Metro can’t get it right,why are we spending millions of dollars of year?’” Beyer said. “I believe we will have to fight again.”  

"I’m frustrated that it has come to this. It is long past time that Metro get to the bottom of ongoing safety concerns," Senate Appropriations ranking member Barbara A. Mikulski said Tuesday.  

In her statement, Mikulski committed to work on "providing federal resources for long-term corrections that are long overdue.”  

Her colleague, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said the shutdown shouldn't have been so unexpected.  

"To label this a “wake-up call” ignores the many other incidents that for years have endangered riders, caused delays and led to shutdowns. I expect Metro to provide detailed updates to Congress and riders about the status of delays and suspensions,” he said.  

"Tomorrow we will get a glimpse of what our nation's capital will look like without the essential system," Beyer said.  

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., had joined the chorus to call for unscheduled leave and free bus service for the federal workforce.  

Metro management made the call to shut down the entire system a day after a fire disrupted travel on the Blue, Orange and Silver lines. According to management, the emergency sweep would focus on 600 cables strung throughout the network of tunnels.  

“At the conclusion of the inspection process, there may be a need for additional rail service outages,” Metro warned in a statement. “Any further service impacts will be announced to the public as soon as they are known.”  

Service is currently scheduled to resume Thursday at 5 a.m.  

Metro suspended all service earlier this year in anticipation of an impending blizzard .  

How to Fix Metro? Ask the Commuters

Contact Rojas at warrenrojas@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @WARojas .

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