Policy

Metro Chief To Congress: I’ll Blame You Next Time

Aging D.C. subway system plagued by breakdowns, safety questions

A Metro train pulls into Capitol South station on Capitol Hill (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Metro's board chairman asked Congress on Wednesday to double its spending to $300 million annually to turn the transit agency into one that can operate the kind of “world-class” subway system found in foreign cities.  

“This system has become an embarrassment in the nation’s capital,” said Board Chairman Jack Evans, who is also a D.C. council member. “All I’m asking from you is $300 million, which is your fair share given the fact that we transport 50 percent of your workforce. Everyday.”  

At an oversight hearing on Capitol Hill, Evans warned that if lawmakers didn’t increase funding for the system, it could lead to further safety issues.  

“Next time something happens, I’m blaming it on you guys,” he said. “We need your help.”  

But some lawmakers pointed to the billions of dollars in reserves the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, also known as Metro, is sitting on.  

“Let’s step up to the plate,” Rep. John L. Mica said, raising his voice and slamming his fist. “You’re dealing with people who are broke. I’m telling you I am not going to bail you out.”  

The Florida Republican, who chairs one of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittees that held a joint meeting Wednesday, insisted that jurisdictions served by Metro such as Maryland and Virginia put up more money in addition to D.C. That burden should not fall on federal taxpayers, Mica said.  

“You sure as heck aren’t going to get it from my folks,” he said.  

To Metro's General Manger Paul Wiedefeld, Mica didn’t mince words: “You need to get in there, fire people… and get that place in order.”  

But the notion that surrounding states weren’t holding up their end of the bargain didn’t sit well with Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who reminded Mica that his state’s taxpayers contribute $300 million a year to the transit authority.  

“Where you stand is where you sit,” Connolly said.  

How to Fix Metro? Ask the Commuters

The D.C. subway system is the second-largest in the nation, with an average weekday ridership of around 700,000.  Wednesday's hearing came nearly a month after the transit system was shut down for 29 hours to evaluate safety concerns.  The shutdown followed a tunnel fire that disrupted travel on three lines. In January 2015, a passenger died after being trapped in a smoke-filled Metro train.  

When discussing his decision to close the Metro system on March 16, Wiedefeld said he began by asking his staff what repairs were needed but "couldn't get straight answers."  

"It's not something I wanted to do," he said at an earlier meeting with senators from Maryland and Virginia. He also said he didn't want to repeat the shutdown and rejected a proposal made by Evans last month that the transit agency could shutter entire rail lines for six months at a time.  

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said he was troubled by board members offering ideas on how to fix the transit system and not leaving those remarks up to Wiedefeld.  

"What, board members are just freelancing suggestions?" Kaine said. "I hope they let you run the system."  

Evans admitted his suggestion to close entire rail lines for up to six months was a “bad idea” but said it would be the best way to get the work done quickly and would cost less.  

At the House hearing, Connolly grilled Carolyn Flowers, a senior adviser at the Federal Transit Administration, after she admitted her agency, which has safety oversight over Metro, was not on hand in person to help inspect rail lines during the unprecedented system shutdown in March.  

“And we’re supposed to have confidence in your ability while you are lecturing Maryland, D.C. and Virginia to get their act together in the pot, you’re nowhere to be seen?” Connolly said.  

Flowers said on that day, they were working with the transit agency “over the telephone” and did oversight of its inspections the night before.  

— Contact Rahman at remarahman@cqrollcall.com or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter

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