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Metro Set to Go Under Congressional Microscope, Again

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials will once again ascend Capitol Hill to answer lawmakers' questions about the transit system's safety and management.  

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing on July 21 to follow-up on questions raised after the deadly incident at the L'Enfant Metro stop in January, where one woman died and dozens were hospitalized after being trapped in a smoke-filled train. The committee held a hearing one month after the incident, but the session did not inspire confidence that a similar incident would not happen again. This time, lawmakers will look to learn what steps WMATA has taken to remedy some of the factors surrounding the electrical issue that caused smoke to fill the tunnel, and if there are any obstacles to further improvements.  

“The primary emphasis is to see what progress has been made over the last few months as well as the impediments going forward,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said in a Thursday phone interview. Meadows chairs the Subcommittee on Government Operations , which will hold the hearing along with the Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets.  

Though the hearing will focus on progress since the L'Enfant incident, Meadows also pointed to recent events as evidence of needed oversight. Commuters have been increasingly frustrated with the system, given frequent of delays and crimes at Metro stations.  

In a series of 10 days, two people were killed at two different Metro stops. On July 14, a man was fatally shot in the parking garage of the Wheaton Metro station. On July 4, a young man who was also a former congressional intern was brutally stabbed on a train coming into the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro stop.  

"It’s my understanding that we really need to look at it from a security and national security aspect," Meadows said.  

The hearing comes as federal officials are placing attention on WMATA. On July 14, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to discuss the issues facing the nation's second busiest transit system.  

The National Transportation Safety Board is still conducting an investigation into the L'Enfant incident, but has issued a series of critical recommendations as part of its ongoing investigation. Meadows did not think the fact the NTSB investigation is still underway would impede the hearing. “There are things that do not have to wait on the NTSB’s report to get done," he said.  

Indeed, Metro has a number of recommendations to work on from another federal agency. In June, the Federal Transit Administration issued a 100-page report on the L'Enfant incident, which included 78 corrective actions for Metrorail and 13 actions for Metrobus. That report prompted federal lawmakers from D.C., Maryland and Virginia to call for accountability and for WMATA to hire a permanent general manager and chief executive officer. Former CEO Richard Sarles stepped down in January, and Jack Requa has served as the interim general manager since then.  

Requa is one of five witnesses confirmed to attend next week's hearing. The witness list also includes James Curley, the train operator in the L'Enfant incident, NTSB Vice Chairwoman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, WMATA Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike and WMATA Inspector General Helen Lew.

WMATA is facing a massive funding decline from Congress, which has moved to cut one-third of its federal funds  much to the chagrin of regional lawmakers. Meadows said he hopes to hear a plan of action from WMATA officials.

"In order to make sound fiscal decisions in terms of what’s needed financially or not, you have to really get a plan in place that says this is going to make it more reliable, this is going to make it safer," Meadows said. "To date we don’t have a plan that I have seen."

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