Hearing Probes Deadly Metro Accident

Posted July 14, 2009 at 6:33pm

Transportation officials urged Congress to provide more funding to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority on Tuesday, testifying that the Metro system needs billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements to ensure its long-term safety.

“As we look at public transportation now and into the future, there must be a balance,— WMATA General Manager John Catoe said. “A balance of system expansion with examining assurance that funding is there to support the system.—

Congress’ first public hearing on the June 22 Metro crash covered a broad range of issues, from the investigation into the accident to the overall public transportation safety system. Members spent hours questioning witnesses on what could have contributed to an accident that killed nine people and injured 80.

But the hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia began with the need for Congress to make good on 2008 legislation that authorized $1.5 billion in federal funding over 10 years.

So far, Congress appears likely to satisfy that request: House appropriators have tagged $150 million for Metro in the fiscal 2010 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill. That money would help Metro pay for capital and maintenance projects and would be matched by the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) — who championed the 2008 legislation that authorized the funds and testified at Tuesday’s hearing — said he was “thrilled— that appropriators planned to start funding Metro’s shortfall. But he also said Members should work to direct stimulus funds toward the system.

“As policymakers — like it or not — we bear some responsibility,— he said, adding that legislation is needed to ensure Metro has a dedicated funding source. “Metro operates in three different jurisdictions, so when it comes to transportation funding, it’s a grab bag.—

Congress has also failed to pass a joint resolution that would secure Metro’s federal funding for the next 10 years. The resolution would approve amendments to the interstate compact that created Metro and, among other things, require that local matching funds come from dedicated sources.

Most witnesses, including Catoe, asked Members to quickly push through the joint resolution.

But most of Tuesday’s hearing was spent discussing the safety system of Metro and oversight of local public transportation.

At one point, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) questioned whether the National Transportation Safety Board should offer alternatives when its recommendations are too costly.

She pointed to the NTSB’s recommendation in 2006 that Metro replace its 1000-series cars, which were involved in the June crash. At the time, she said, Metro didn’t have the money to do so.

The “common sense— recommendation, she said, would have been to put the outdated cars in the middle of trains. Metro has implemented that plan since the June crash, in which the train that caused the crash was entirely composed of 1000-series cars.

“My question is very simple. You knew these people could not possibly replace these trains,— she said. “Why did the transportation board not at least recommend this rather low-tech, low-cost step?—

Deborah Hersman, an NTSB member, said the board’s role isn’t to consider cost in its recommendations. But she said she understood the frustration.

Members also questioned the lack of authority and funding for safety boards.

Peter Rogoff, an administrator for the Federal Transit Administration, said the agency is already looking at how the federal government can change an oversight system that is “in need of reform.—

But D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham (D), who heads the Metro Board of Directors, asked Members to keep in mind that officials still do not know the true cause of the crash.

“We need to have the probable cause of this accident identified, and we need to have a preliminary report from the NTSB,— he said. “Our experience is that there’s a great deal of … misleading information that is in circulation at the current time.—

The NTSB has issued several recommendations in recent weeks, including one Monday that asks Metro to establish a real-time backup to its electrical system that prevents crashes.

The recommendation refers to the apparent failure of that system on June 22.