Probes of MTA, wheels urged

Porcari launches inquiry on trouble with city buses

20 injured in 16 incidents

Safety wasn't the priority, transit advocates argue

May 27, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Alarmed over incidents in which at least 16 Maryland Transit Administration buses have lost wheels since August, transit advocates said yesterday that they will ask the governor for an independent investigation into both the cause of the failures and why the agency didn't identify a pattern until after the 10th accident occurred.

"The fact that it's 16 buses now and it's only in the last few weeks that this has been taken really seriously make it appear that riders' safety was not the No. 1 concern," said Barbara Cutko, who serves as co-chairwoman of the regional Transit Riders League.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari has launched a two-pronged inquiry by department auditors and a private consulting firm. But transit league members said they want the problem explored by people outside the department.

"We feel there needs to be an independent, unbiased, complete and highest-level investigation," Cutko said.

State legislators, however, said they are confident that Porcari can quickly investigate and correct the matter.

Calling the incidents "absolutely unacceptable," Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the transportation and environment subcommittee, said he will ask Porcari to submit a status report by the end of this week.

"This is an obvious black eye for mass transit," Franchot said. "We'll rely on the secretary to give us a complete report card."

In an article yesterday, The Sun documented a string of accidents that have occurred between August and May 11, resulting in 20 injury claims from passengers and drivers. Documents and interviews reveal that the MTA's acting administrator, Virginia White, launched an internal inquiry April 20. Wheel manufacturers -- and even Porcari -- were not informed of the scope of the problem until last week.

According to interviews and records, White excluded the MTA safety department from the probe; blocked an independent inspection of buses that was arranged by MTA safety officials; and challenged the authority of a safety officer who identified potential wheel maintenance problems at the agency's Bush Street garage, which is run by White's husband.

In some of the accidents, the wheels rolled free and crashed into vehicles, buildings and, in one instance, a natural-gas tank, which ruptured and leaked, according to MTA records. In other incidents, drivers reported struggling to maintain control of buses after wheels came off.

"There's great outrage and concern about what's going on and what hasn't been going on," said Ralph Moore, a longtime community activist and advocate for the poor. "It feels as if the concern for riders' safety has been totally minimized. We don't want MTA or even the Department of Transportation to investigate this."

Cutko said investigating how the problem has been handled is as important as finding the cause of the wheel failures if riders are to regain confidence in the system.

"The way to gain trust is to have a safe, reliable service riders can count on," she said. "The other way is by dealing with your problems openly and immediately getting on top of them."

Officials with the governor's office could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Brent Flickinger, director of the transportation program for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said the accidents could help identify underlying problems at the MTA.

"Obviously, it's outrageous that something like this would happen and not be dealt with immediately," he said. "But it may prevent other things from happening if an investigation turns up problems with accountability or communication or training or with the unions."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said legislators expect to receive information this week about Porcari's investigation and what he is proposing to do. After that, he said, "we'll decide whether some oversight hearings are needed."

"I think we've been very lucky that there's not been a tragedy from these incidents," Rawlings said.

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