Virginia Politicians Say Safety, Funding are Keys to Metro Turnaround

Virginia Politicians Say Safety, Funding are Keys to Metro Turnaround
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) speaks with Silver Line Rail Project Executive Director Charles Stark (right) at Dulles Airport on Dec. 13.

As members of Congress look ahead to the challenges they will tackle in the next session, politicians from both parties agree that the Metro system that 1.2 million people use on a daily basis needs a massive overhaul. The solutions, Virginia’s elected officials say, come down to safety and funding.

Safety aboard Metro has become the top priority for a rail system that has been plagued by a rash of high-profile accidents, including a complete derailment of a train in Fairfax County earlier this year.  Metro has experienced years of repair neglect, leading general manager Paul Wiedefeld to implement “SafeTrack”, a year-long repair blitz. The effort is striving to combine three years of work into one, resulting in maintenance during off-hours and occasional “safety surges” that shut down portions of the rail system for up to weeks at a time. Parts of the Silver Line in Fairfax County are undergoing one such surge this month.

Elected leaders have been quick to praise Wiedefeld, who has been at his position for a little more than a year, but admit there is still much to be done in changing not only Metro’s physical infrastructure, but its workforce culture. Recent reports have shown that some safety inspectors either ignored their duties or told their subordinates to lie on inspection forms.

“If you falsify a safety inspection, you should be fired. If you told some one to do that, you should be fired. Period,” said Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-11th) at a roundtable hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 12.

Connolly, whose district includes much of Fairfax County, has been an outspoken critic of Metro’s operations. Along with other members of Congress, including Barbara Comstock (R-10th), Connolly has demanded Metro focus on safety, starting with its employees.

“We have a culture of inference and mediocrity that’s been allowed to set in,” Connolly said. “That has to be turned around. It can’t be ignored”

Also speaking before the Chamber, Comstock said new technology is necessary to chance the culture. She said Metro needs to implement a system for its safety inspectors that digitally monitors the completion of each task. She also supported Wiedefeld’s recommendation to remove binding arbitration from workers’ contracts as a way to help turn Metro around.

On a tour of the new Metro rail Silver Line extension in Northern Virginia on Dec. 13, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said the transportation system has to prioritize safety to rebuild trust. He said that in turn will help one of Metro’s other biggest issues: funding.

Metro is facing a $275 million budget shortfall, and Wiedefeld hinted it may need to increase fares to make up the deficit. The system is losing ridership because of safety and reliability concerns, and this upcharge could further reduce ridership. Elected leaders fear that even a 10 percent decline in Metro ridership would lead to a corresponding increase in the number of vehicles on the road, which would add to traffic gridlock.

One solution advocated by Kaine and other Democrats, is to have federal funding for day-to-day operations.  Currently the system is only funded by Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, leading Connolly to call the federal government a “dead-beat dad” when it comes to helping Metro.

Nearly 40 percent of federal employees use Metro on a regular basis, including the majority of congressional staff. Kaine called the staff “a loud constituency in every member’s office” on behalf of Metro, and was optimistic that a change in culture would help garner congressional support for funding.

“The better and better the management does, the better they address the safety issues to give people a feeling of confidence, the more and more likely Congress is to give funding,” Kaine said. “If Metro management keeps improving on the safety side, those of us in Congress will keep making the case to all of our colleagues all over the country.”