The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recently held a hearing on the ongoing management and safety failures of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the largest transit provider in the Washington, D.C., region and the second-largest heavy-rail operator in the country. The hearing gave members of Congress, including all eight members of the House of Representatives who represent a jurisdiction served by WMATA, the opportunity to wonder aloud why the authority is not a safer, more financially sustainable mass transit system.
Members of Congress grilled Metro leaders Wednesday over the transit agency’s untenable situation: more than half its trains out of service because of a safety issue, COVID and telework decimating its ridership and revenue, and a looming budget gap.
The two-hour hearing at the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Reform was wide-ranging, with questions about Metro’s response to COVID, how it’s used federal dollars in capital budgets, and the search for a new General Manager.
“Metro needs to do better,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said. “The new general manager will need to work with a Safety Commission to restore the public’s faith in Metro.
“Obviously, if they don’t think our system is safe… they’re not going to ride it.”
At the hearing Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a lawyer and constitutional law professor, asked why more of the agency’s defective railcars had not been repaired. WMATA CEO Paul Wiedefeld stated that he did not consider the cars to be defective because it was a “warranty issue.”
Raskin then asked if WMATA had known the railcars were defective for five years, why was this “warranty issue” not addressed? Before Wiedefeld could answer, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who was leading the hearing, shut down that line of questioning.
For mass transit watchers and those in the Beltway this likely seems familiar, it is because this is the third congressional oversight hearing on WMATA’s issues in the last six years. Yet, despite an independent Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, an influx of federal funding, and a chief executive officer who has tried to change the culture, WMATA largely keeps repeating the same mistakes.
For example, after a 7000-series railcar derailed in Oct. 2021, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the wheel assemblies had failed 31 times since 2007. The defect could have resulted in a catastrophic accident, yet WMATA allowed defective cars to remain in service. In fact, the train that derailed on Oct. 12 had derailed at least twice earlier that day.
The 7000-series railcar problem is no small defect. The wheel of the Blue Line car that derailed shifted two inches on its axle. Yet, the investigation found the defect that occurs “sporadically” and without warning was not considered a safety hazard by WMATA until that train car derailed, The Washington Post reported.
“I want to assure our customers that their safety is driving every decision being made,” WMATA’s Wiedefeld said in a statement last October.
Unfortunately, the system’s riders can’t feel too assured given that WMATA kept two cars that it knew had similar defects in service for days after Wiedefeld’s statement. They were only removed when the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission ordered them to be taken out of service.
Last October, a clearly exasperated Robert Lauby, formerly the Federal Railroad Administration’s chief safety officer, told The Washington Post, “Washington Metro’s been around a long time and had over 40 years of operating trains and essentially responding to emergencies and evacuating passengers. And yet again, in this particular accident investigation, we’re finding a failure to use incident command system, failure to communicate problems just in making plans to recover the trains in the emergency.”
The October incident shows that much of the real problem at WMATA is governance-related. Its board is fundamentally flawed. Some of WMATA’s board members interfere in daily operations and allow problems between management and labor to fester. They appear to be most interested in trying to maximize mass transit service in their districts as opposed to running the entire transit system in ways that benefit riders and the entire region. And when an accident occurs, they seem to deflect responsibility rather than seek meaningful solutions and changes.
In 2017, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood developed a proposal to shrink the number of WMATA board members from 16 to five. In order to build support for the change, LaHood called for giving the “reform” board additional powers and increased federal funding. The Washington Post reported:
Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood urged the Washington region’s top elected officials Monday to tackle Metro’s problems by appointing a temporary “reform board” of five members to replace the transit system’s existing 16-member governing body. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) all endorsed the overall goal of shrinking Metro’s board, but they wanted more details about how it would happen.
Despite the support of those leaders, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Lane, and many in the region’s business community, the proposal died. Rep. Connolly criticized the proposal at the time, arguing that it would not provide enough representation to his Northern Virginia constituency. Some leaders in Maryland and D.C. had reservations as well. In the end, political leaders provided WMATA additional funding without making any reforms to WMATA’s board.
While some of these problems are unique to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, they also underscore one of the ongoing challenges facing mass transit improvements in the United States, where political maneuvering is often prioritized ahead of data, technical solutions, business best practices and what transit users actually need to an extent not seen in most developed countries.
It’s very difficult for a mass transit organization to be successful when it reports to political actors rather than reporting to its customers. If WMATA is ever going to improve, the governors of Maryland and Virginia along with the mayor of Washington, DC, are likely going to need to take the difficult step of withholding their funding from WMATA until it reforms its board. Otherwise, we’re likely to be watching more congressional oversight hearings asking about more WMATA failures in the years to come.