Federal investigation finds D.C.'s Metro rife with flaws

March 05, 2010|By Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens | The Washington Post

A federal investigation has identified pervasive flaws in rail safety at Metro and with the agency responsible for overseeing it. Findings released Thursday call for widespread changes in how the nation's second-busiest subway system is supervised and managed.

The sternly worded report, prepared by the Federal Transit Administration and presented Thursday to Washington-area members of Congress, critically examined Metro's safety program for the first time, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said. It revealed deep-rooted deficiencies at the transit agency and its independent oversight committee, revealing vulnerabilities in the very systems that are supposed to safeguard passengers and workers, he said.

The report excoriates executives at Metro and independent safety monitors at the Tri-State Oversight Committee for their failures: Metro has no process to ensure safety problems are identified in a timely fashion. Top leaders don't get regular reports about safety issues. The safety office has been marginalized within the agency, lacks access to key data about subway operations and has been left out of decision-making. As a result, the report says, the safety office has allowed known safety hazards to remain uncorrected for years.

The findings will make it increasingly difficult to placate members of Congress who have called for "direct federal intervention" if Metro does not make immediate improvements to safety, although Rogoff flatly ruled out a takeover of Metro by the FTA. The findings will put additional pressure on whoever ends up running Metro after John B. Catoe Jr. steps down April 2. The board tapped former New Jersey Transit chief Richard Sarles on Thursday to run the agency on an interim basis.

"Our audit makes clear that these two agencies are not doing enough to guarantee the safety of Metro passengers or Metro workers," Rogoff said, referring to Metro and its oversight body. He added that the safety performance of the Washington system was worse than others of similar size. Noting that the findings were a symptom of a much deeper problem extending from executive leadership down to the most junior employee, Rogoff urged the incoming Metro general manager to use the report as a "road map" for the "overarching safety problem."

Rogoff, a daily rider on the Orange and Green lines, said the agency needs "radical restructuring," including "knocking some heads and putting some people on the unemployment line."

He presented his findings to all four of the region's senators and four House members, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Chris Van Hollen, Donna Edwards and Gerry Connolly.

"This is a shocking, hair-raising and chilling review of the safety situation at Metro and a failure of its management and the board," said Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat, echoing the sentiments of others. One of the biggest supporters of federal funding for Metro, she warned that her support would depend on what steps the agency takes to address the broad leadership issues raised by the FTA.

"I'll be damned if it's gonna be a blank check," she said.

A Metro spokeswoman said the agency "will begin work immediately to address the finding and recommendations."

The report asks for Metro's in-depth responses to the report by May 4.

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