Lawmaker says Metro’s on-track to restoring ‘America’s transit system’

A Virginia-based congressman whose staff relies almost entirely on public transit says Metro’s ambitious renovation plan will require cooperation from federal managers to reduce the toll on the workforce.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin that Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s sudden shutdown of the entire rail system on March 16 for emergency repairs was a “bold stroke” in the right direction, despite the furor it generated from commuting federal employees.

“The good news is that the new general manager is committed to taking three years’ worth of maintenance and squeezing it into one year, and that will be very good in terms of restoring confidence in the safety of the system,” Beyer said. “And he’s made a bold stroke again — he’s let a bunch of people go, he’s trying to hold the folks there much more accountable. He’s begun the process of turning the culture around so it becomes much more safety-oriented, much more customer service-oriented.”

Much like his staff, Beyer said he also commutes to work on Capitol Hill via Metro,  and will be affected by WMATA’s SafeTrack plan, which calls for long-term outages of various rail segments in order to make three years’ worth of maintenance happen in one year.

Despite the strain it will put on the D.C. metro region, Beyer said he supports the SafeTrack plan, and hopes federal managers will be flexible with employees during the outages.

“We’re all going to have to adapt. Beth Cobert, who runs OPM, has been very friendly and flexible in terms of thinking about how we can minimize the impact on federal employees — more telework, staggered hours, things like that,” Beyer said. “We just have to be as practical as we can, and having OPM help lead on it is great, and [Cobert’s] been working with the heads of all the different departments and agencies, trying to make sure that they are sensitive to the fact that if it takes a long time to get to work, it’s discouraging and your work product’s not maybe going to be the best.”

An all-hands-on-deck approach to fixing Metro

The National Transportation Safety Board, in its recent report on Metro safety, recommended outside safety oversight for WMATA. But since the rail system serves Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, the question of responsibility has been an open question.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently appointed the agency’s general counsel Kathryn Thomson to serve as his special adviser on Metrorail oversight.

The Federal Transit Administration, part of the Transportation Department, was given temporary oversight of WMATA last fall.

Beyer said Congress has its own role to play in implementing a culture of safety at WMATA.

“It’s hard to turn a ship around, and you can’t do it just by eliminating people, and you certainly can’t do it just by cutting pay. It’s more a matter of just day-in and day-out promoting a culture of safety and a culture of operational excellence. We do that when people are proud of where they’re going to work,” Beyer said.

In addition to leadership, WMATA is also in dire need of funding.

“Everyone’s thinking together and talking together about finally biting the bullet and coming up with a sustainable, long-term funding stream, and it’s going to have to come from Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and the federal government,” Beyer said.

With ridership on the decline, Beyer said WMATA’s rail fares have not been enough to cover its operational costs. Metro currently receives $150 million from the federal government annually, a sum that is matched by the governments of Virginia, Maryland, and D.C.

“We’re significantly short on an annual basis. The fares, even though they’re too high, aren’t enough to carry the system,” Beyer said. “But we need a lot more than that. We need another tunnel under the Potomac, and almost all the railroad ties in Virginia have to be replaced. There’s an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance and deferred infrastructure investment.”

But when it comes to federal funding from WMATA, Beyer said other mass-transit systems — like New York’s MTA or Boston’s MBTA — shouldn’t grouse about special treatment.

“Look, Metro is America’s transit system, and more than half of federal employees get to work on the the Metro. We’re the most important city in the world, and probably with the most important transportation needs. This is a federal system, not just a local system.”

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