Amid concerns about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's management of the second busiest transit system in the country, one member of Congress is threatening to strip WMATA of its current management and structure.
"If this nonsense continues in the lack of management and the ability to get extensive management in place, I will work, and I think I can get support, to require that the operations and management be put up for bid and be given to an operating company," Rep. John L. Mica said at a hearing on Metro safety and management Tuesday evening. The Florida Republican, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Transportation and Public Assets Subcommittee, was presiding over a hearing that sought to provide an update after a deadly January incident in a Metro tunnel. On Jan. 12, dozens of passengers were hospitalized and one died after a southbound Yellow Line stopped in a tunnel near the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop and filled with smoke.
The incident and subsequent Metro issues, as well as a safety assessment by the Federal Transit Administration and an ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation, revealed mismanagement of the transit system, causing federal and local lawmakers to push for WMATA to hire a long-term general manager/chief executive officer.
Jack Requa, the interim general manager who has held the post since January, said the new CEO is expected to be selected this fall. But that might not be enough to quell congressional efforts for an overhaul.
Mica said his deadline for taking action was September, noting lawmakers could insert a provision into a spending bill to address it. "September, we’ll look at what they’ve done, how did they respond?" Mica told CQ Roll Call after the hearing.
Referring to his idea to alter Metro management, Mica said, "But that’s something we can put in an appropriations bill as a caveat. So you know if they can’t manage it, we’ll find somebody that can, and hopefully do it more efficiently, ensure safety and make the improvement. I mean how damn long do you want to wait for some of these improvements?”
However, when asked if he would wait and see if a new general manger could turn Metro around, Mica said, "We’ll see. It depends on what the members want to do."
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., focused on the search for a new CEO at the hearing, questioning Metro's board of directors' decision not to require that candidates have government or transit industry experience. Requa noted in his testimony that the search for a general manager will also include candidates with "extensive financial management experience."
"The idea that we wouldn’t put operations as central to the mission of a new general manager boggles my mind,” Connolly said.
Connolly listed out three crises that must be addressed: one in management, one in public confidence in Metro, and one of safety. He pointed to the brutal stabbing of a young man on a train as it approached the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro stop on July 4th.
"I’m old enough to remember our boasting of the fact that we hadn’t had a single crime on our Metro system," Connolly said. "Now we have a murder on a car in front of the public. How in the world could that happen on a well-run Metro in the nation’s capital?”
WMATA representatives at the hearing said they were taking steps to address FTA and National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, including the issue that a number of power cable connectors were missing "sealing sleeves" to protect cables from moisture and other particles. NTSB noted in an urgent recommendation that moisture on the cables could increase the possiblitiy of the electrical malfunction that caused the tunnel to fill with smoke in January.
Mica, who indicated he had seen the underground cables himself, asked if the connections were inspected. "I looked at it, the very large wire connector ... but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see it somehow shorted out. I assumed at the time I looked at it, it may have been water getting into that."
Requa responded,"Following the comment by the NTSB, we inspected all of the connections within the system, we prioritized those that we feel need to be addressed in a priority order. We're taking actions to now."
The day before the hearing, Metro also announced a new fire/rescue liaison officer to enhance coordination among emergency responders in the wake of the L'Enfant incident. However, the liaison will only be stationed in Metro's control center for 40 hours per week. According to NBC 4 , officials hoped the position would be around the clock, but staffing and funding concerns limited the hours.
Funding also came up in Tuesday's hearing, with one member of Congress noting that lawmakers have an obligation to fully fund the system.
“In all those hearings and meetings there has been no evidence that Metro itself is unsafe," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said. "I did say this," she added, "that if Congress cuts $50 million from capital funding ... then we can be assured that we are moving toward unsafety."
Norton was pointing to lawmakers' recent moves to cut federal funding of WMATA by one-third. Congress typically allots $150 million for the transit system, which transports thousands of tourists and federal workers each day, but appropriators moved to cut $50 million of those funds , citing financial mismanagement.
See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.