Funding, Ethics, Ongoing Safety Top Discussion at House Oversight Hearing on WMATA
On October 22, the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations held a hearing, “Metro: Report Card for America’s Subway”. Discussions centered on ongoing efforts to maintain safety and reliability with a steady stream of funding, and also highlighted several high-profile recent events.
Witnesses included (click on their name to see their written testimony):
- Geoffrey Cherrington, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Inspector General (IG)
- David L. Mayer, Washington Metrorail Safety Commission CEO
- Paul Smedberg, Chair of WMATA Board of Directors
- Paul Wiedefeld, WMATA General Manager and CEO
Federal funding for operating costs
Much time was spent discussing H.R. 2520, the Metro Accountability and Investment Act. The bill, which was reintroduced this year by subcommittee chairman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and the entire DC-area House Congressional delegation, would reauthorize $150 million per year in federal capital funds for WMATA for 10 years (a previous 10-year, $1.5 billion authorization ran out this year) and authorize $50 million per year in new federal operating funds contingent on WMATA strengthening oversight. Among the reforms tied to these operating costs: Metro would be required to provide the WMATA IG with budget, procurement, and hiring authorities; make independent legal advice available; and improve transparency of its corrective actions. Of the new operating funds, $10 million would be dedicated to the WMATA Office of the Inspector General.
In addition, the legislation would authorize additional federal capital funding to the tune of $100 million per year for 20 years conditional on WMATA system performance and continued dedicated funding from DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
Paul Smedberg voiced support for the bill, indicating that dedicating a portion of funds for the IG and making funds available contingent on safety measures would be beneficial. Unsurprisingly, IG Charrington also voiced support for institutionalizing resources for his office into federal law.
WMATA board ethics reforms
Chairman Connolly listed former WMATA Board Chair and DC Councilmember Jack Evans’s violation of the board’s code of ethics and the board’s mishandling of the ethics complaints as major areas of concern. Evans was investigated for using his official position on the Metro board for personal and professional gain, and the board has been criticized for its handling of the investigation, including its failure to produce a report or statement in concluding the investigation into Evans, false statements made by several members (including Evans).
In response to criticisms of the board’s failure to issue a public report on the ethics probe, Smedberg indicated that at the time, the ethics committee determined the issue was resolved. Moving forward, all conflicts will be referred to the IG and acted on the by the board in a public process, per a new ethics code that was unanimously adopted in September by the board. Under the revised code, undisclosed conflicts of interest will be referred to the IG, and there will not be a distinction between actual and apparent conflicts of interest.
Safety and maintenance
Amid ongoing safety efforts to improve the Metrorail system, members were eager to hear how recent events are being handled by the agency and the newly-certified Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.
Specifically, there were a number of questions about the train collision in Farragut West in early October. The two trains involved in the crash were not carrying any passengers, though the two operators did sustain injuries. The issue was determined to be a human error, but Dr. Mayer indicated that rather than blaming individuals, he’d rather see systemic solutions. When asked if this incident will take priority over other cases under review by his office by Rep. Holmes Norton (D-DC), he stated that his staff has been directed to prioritize Corrective Action Plans that could prevent collision.
Holmes Norton expressed concern about WMATA’s possible purchase of new railcars from Chinese state-owned CRRC, calling this an “avenue for espionage”. IG Cherrington claimed that, while he can’t explicitly advise Metro on purchases, his office did issue a management alert expressing concern about the procurement. The IG will audit the purchase just as it does every other procurement.
Finally, addressing maintenance costs for the 23-mile Silver Line extension to Dulles Airport was a major topic of concern, with WMATA expected to take possession of the line in late 2020. Citing the IG’s recommendations not to accept rail yard or concrete panels unless or until everything has been fixed, Chairman Connolly indicated that this is a problem that “unaddressed, we otherwise inherit.” Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) cautioned against accepting the project without assurances that it’s built to last. She stated that, “even if money is put into an escrow account now, there’s no guarantee that contractors will be around when we need to take advantage of that.” The IG is expected to produce an independent review of the project by the end of the year.