One Senate committee took action Wednesday to wield congressional power over the District of Columbia's Metro system amid criticism over safety and service.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., introduced a bill last week to alter the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's board of directors, granting the Transportation Secretary sole authority to appoint the federal members of the board. On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill, which both Maryland and Virginia senators support, by voice vote. “I will not rest until Metro produces safety results,” Mikulski said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Enough is enough. I have demanded new leadership and a new culture of safety at Metro."
The Metro board consists of eight voting and eight non-voting, or alternate, directors. Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia each appoint two directors and two alternates, and the federal government also appoints two directors and two alternates to the board. Currently the General Services Administration appoints the federal members, but some regional lawmakers think that should change.
“I just think it’s so much more natural that the federal appointees should come out of DOT than out of the GSA," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told CQ Roll Call Wednesday. He later added, "I would have greater confidence in the Secretary of Transportation choosing those representatives. And my sense of Metro challenges right now is there are huge management challenges, and it starts with the board."
Although the current chairman does have experience in the Transportation Department, Kaine said the change would lead to long-term benefits.
Last week, Mikulski called for the board's chairman, Mortimer Downey, to step down, and pointed to questions about whether Downey violated conflict of interest rules. Downey was appointed chairman in January and was the first federal government appointee to the board five years prior. He served as the deputy transportation secretary from 1993 to 2001, and as an assistant secretary from 1977 to 1981.
Kaine stopped short of echoing Mikulski's call for Downey to step down, but he said Metro was in need of stronger leadership.
"Certainly when you see a system that has had the kinds of challenges this system has had, it starts at the top," Kaine said. "I think all of us are really just really tearing our hair out about the leadership of the organization right now."
The Senate bill is the second time in a week that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has been invoked to step in on Metro issues. On Sept. 30, the National Transportation Safety Board wrote Foxx requesting that Metro be placed under the Federal Railroad Administration's jurisdiction.
But doing so would require an act of Congress, and it is not yet clear if the move has the support of the national capital region delegation. According to Mikulski's office, she welcomes the recommendation and is reviewing it. Kaine said he was "favorably inclined" to the recommendation, but would like the opportunity to be briefed and ask questions.
“I agree with change," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said Tuesday when asked if he supports the NTSB's recommendation. "As I said, there are several proposals for change as it relates to accountability for safety, as it relates to appointment of directors, as it relates to the management structure. I’m for change. The status quo’s not acceptable.”
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