D.c. Metro Looks To Put Brakes On Battered Image

February 01, 2010|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

For months, the Washington Metro system, once one of the most admired transit systems in the country, has seemed to be at the lowest point in its history - forced to make painful budget choices, facing a hole in top management and struggling to recover from a series of fatal accidents that called its safety into question.

The deaths of two track maintenance employees last week has only made matters worse, prompting the National Transportation Safety Board, a frequent critic of Metro's safety performance in the past, to launch yet another investigation of the troubled transit agency.

But transit observers and experts believe the Washington Metro's recent problems reveal fundamental problems with the system's management and governance structure.

"These track workers getting killed, it's now being repeated and repeated and there's clearly something wrong here," said Ben Ross, president of the Montgomery County-oriented Action Committee for Transit.

It's been a steady tumble for a system that has long been, and in many ways still is, the envy of Baltimore transit advocates. With its extensive reach and deep penetration of the fabric of everyday life in the Washington area, Metro has achieved a status that Baltimore's relatively simple rail transit system - consisting of a single subway line and one light rail line with awkward interconnections - can't begin to approach.

With all its flaws, the Washington Metro is a system that local residents care deeply - even personally - about. At a Metro board hearing last week on how to close this year's $40 million budget gap related to the recession, three meeting rooms at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's headquarters were filled to overflowing. While some speakers opposed any fare increase, significantly more spoke out against proposed cutbacks in service hours, bus routes and the frequency of buses and trains.

"The real lesson ... is that when the system has some big problems, the outpouring of concern shows how much support transit gets when you have a good system," said Ross, whose organization was cheered the next day when the Metro board voted down service cuts and decided to impose a 10-cent, across-the-board fare increase.

Thousands in state ride Metro

Maryland has a clear stake in the future of Washington's transit system. Hundreds of thousands of residents from Montgomery and Prince George's counties ride Metrorail and Metrobuses every day, and Maryland - along with the District of Columbia, Virginia and the federal government - provides the money to operate the system.

For about 25,000 Baltimore-area residents, the Washington Metro is an essential part of their daily commute to mostly high-paying jobs in Washington and its suburbs. Some drive to the nearest Metro station - whether it be Greenbelt, Shady Grove, New Carrollton or Glenmont. Others take MARC trains and transfer to the Metro for the final leg of their trips to offices in downtown Washington or Northern Virginia.

On Thursday, Maryland board member Peter Benjamin was elected chairman of the system - a post that typically rotates among jurisdictions each year. In that role, he will be called upon to be the public face of Metro and to lead the search for a new general manager to replace John Catoe, who announced his resignation in early January after three tumultuous years as the system's chief executive.

Benjamin said the most recent fatalities left the organization shocked and upset. In the early-morning hours last Tuesday, two veteran Metro track employees working on the Red Line near Rockville were killed when a truck-like vehicle used in track maintenance backed over them. Jeff Garrard, 49, of Clarksburg and Sung Duk Oh, 68, of Montgomery Village became the fourth and fifth workers to die on the job at Metro facilities since last June's Red Line disaster.

"We're just not used to things like this happening. It's shocking. It's difficult to understand," Benjamin said.

What many find difficult to understand is Metro's ongoing problems protecting employees. Within three months of the June 22 crash in which eight passengers and a Metro operator died - a collision attributed to a faulty sensor - two other employees were killed in the right of way at Dunn Loring and near Reagan National Airport in Northern Virginia. In August, a contractor was electrocuted at a Metro bus depot in Bladensburg.

The recent cluster of deaths follows a spate of accidents that took four workers' lives during a 14-month span in 2005 and 2006.

Benjamin conceded that Metro's safety problems are a "cultural issue." Changing that culture, he said, is "really difficult."

Catoe, Benjamin said, made safety his No. 1 priority when he took over management of Metro in 2007. But after a promising start, the June catastrophe and subsequent fatalities began to take a toll.

"I think he recognized the fact that he's not as effective as he used to be so that's why he needed to resign," Benjamin said. Catoe will leave his post in April.

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