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Lawmakers Define Oversight Role in L'Enfant Metro Incident

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Members of Congress are looking to flex their oversight muscles, after summoning national and local transportation officials to Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening to brief them on the recent deadly incident at the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station.  

Although the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating and the D.C. government is becoming involved, members of the capital region delegation insisted they, too, have a role to play.  

Four senators, six representatives and one delegate representing Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia gathered in the Senate's Mansfield Room to tell the press what they learned in the closed-door meeting. The briefing was called after a southbound Yellow Line train stalled in the tunnel on Jan. 12, and the train and the tunnel filled with smoke as passengers waited for first responders to arrive.  

"We are definitely supporters of [Washington Metro Area Transit Authority], definitely supporters of Metro, but that does not mean that we will not make sure that there is not accountability," House Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. said. "That is so very, very important. We will be holding some hearings in our committee, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where I am ranking, to address some of these issues and maintain that accountability."  

In addition to a concern for their constituents who frequent the Metro system, the members of Congress also listed significant federal investments in WMATA and national security interests as justifying their involvement.  

"The federal government provides significant funding for Metro because it is the transportation system of the nation’s capital," Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., said in the Speaker's Lobby Thursday. "So we have both an oversight role, and we have a role as appropriators."  

Delaney and Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., both described the closed-door meeting as stern and noted that the lawmakers were firm in questioning the NTSB and WMATA officials present, who included NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart and acting WMATA general manager Jack Requa.  

"We have invested a lot of money and so we expect to have a fair return on investment," Beyer said Thursday. "We, especially the appropriators, can legitimately ask for accountability.”  

Beyer said the meeting did not include talks of reducing or increasing funding allocated to WMATA. “There was no threat of taking it away or promise of more," Beyer said. "It was demanding that what we spent is being spent wisely.”  

Along with the electrical issue that caused the smoke, a major concern for members of Congress, is the emergency response procedures following the first calls for help, and the problems that could ensue in the event of another emergency.  

"This tragic incident underscores the vulnerability of the nation’s capital in the event of a terrorist attack," Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., said after Wednesday briefing. "That’s why it’s so critical and so urgent that we address these issues in a swift and satisfactory manner.”  

The lawmakers said they learned that the radio communication between emergency responders broke down last week, in part because the D.C. firefighters updated their radio encryptions and did not notify WMATA. The members of Congress were visibly frustrated about this, noting that significant funds allocated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks sought to improve emergency response communications.  

"The unfortunate tragedy is that 14 years after 9/11 we’re still not fully there," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., at the press conference. He added, "We’ve invested literally hundreds of millions of dollars in radio systems. If they don’t talk to each other in a crisis, they don’t do much good.”  

Congress granted WMATA $1.5 billion over 10 years as part of a broader rail safety package in 2008, which has been handed out in $150 million installments.  

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., brought up the subject of funding in her opening remarks at Wednesday's press conference.  

“As the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, I said that we would work in terms of what we needed to do for funds from the federal checkbook," Mikuslki said.  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said afterward that Mikulski worked to ensure that WMATA received each installment while she chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee. But, with Republicans in charge of the Senate, she might face more opposition to the funding.  

"It is indispensable," said Norton, referring to the funding. "I’m sure [Mikuslki] is going to do some trading to do it.”  

With regard to any possible opposition to WMATA funding, Norton said, “I am depending upon the fact that we finally made people understand that this system essentially serves the federal government far more than it serves us as individuals."  

Delaney also noted that the capital region delegation will face opposition to WMATA funding, but that was nothing new.  

"We always have to fight for investments in Metro and that’s why the delegation is really so together on this issue," Delaney said Thursday. "Listen, we’re in a budget constrained environment. There are certain colleagues — I won’t name names — who think Washington is too big to begin with, so they’re probably not as sensitive to the demands on the local transportation system as others are."  

"People are fighting for every nickel," Delaney added. "If I were a member of Congress from another part of the country, I would care about making sure Metro’s funded because it’s the capital city. But I do care more because so many of my constituents use it every day.”  

Related: Lawmakers Demand Answers About Deadly L’Enfant Metro Incident (Updated) L’Enfant Metro Incident Raises Questions About D.C. Emergency Response The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.