Wes Vernon Commentary
May 2016

The Current Metro Mess: Who Tried to Warn You?

Back in June of 2004, we asked in these pages, Will Congress Investigate Metro?

The hearing suggested: 2004

Our expressed desire then was that Capitol Hill would have "the guts to stand up for the taxpayers of the nation and the fare-paying Metro riders, and launch an investigation of the Metro safety lapses over the years."

We also advocated a look-see at another issue at that time: "the criminal activity that Metro itself acknowledges. "More on that latter point further on in this report.

For now, the probe: 2016

First off, suffice it to say for now; Congress is in fact, investigating Metro. In the years-long interim since we raised the issue of Metro's controversial stewardship for ridership safety and taxpayer support, the safety issues with DC's 40-year old subway have become so acute that there is a question as to whether it will be necessary to shut down the whole system for six months while it is "fixed." Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, also a D.C. Councilman, has indicated that off-hours late night and weekend work on system are by themselves insufficient to accomplish the job.

On second thought

That could mean a Hobson's choice for Metro riders: presenting a worsening safety risk or---asking for public patience while scheduled service goes missing for an intolerable length of time. The latter proposal appears "dead on arrival."

The hearing: 2016

So now in the very same year almost to the tick of the clock of 40 years since Metro opened (in 1976), here they were at a congressional hearing. "Cooler heads" may have prevailed since Metro Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, as if to allay all fears about losing all service for six months, tried to re-direct the conversation to a more moderate tone.

Maybe not that bad

Now Mr. Wiedefeld's revised comments were something on the order of - Six months? Relax! Relax! Take it easy. Who can say we definitely have to shut down for six months? No one remedy by itself will do the job. This is going to require a lot of work, not just that one thing. No one project is going to un-cripple this subway.

Whew! Glad we got that cleared up. Now, can you sleep better tonight?

The 2016 hearing

There were several Metro stakeholders at a recent Capitol hearing. The proceedings, according to published reports were conducted jointly by two congressional subcommittees, one of which was created apparently to provide a transportation-related chairmanship to Rep. John Mica (R-Fla) who had lost out in previous changes by the Republican majority's practice of revolving door chairmanships to give junior members of Congress an opportunity to wield the gavel.

The Floridian has used several opportunities to go after publicly-controlled passenger lines, whether it is Metro or Amtrak. This hearing on Metro's disastrous travails presented Mr. Mica with yet another golden opportunity to indulge in what has become, for him, almost a way of life.

Solution or opportunity?

There was a lot of shouting and pounding on the table at the House hearing.

Metro Board Chairman Evans pointed out that Metro transports thousands of federal employees to and from their jobs daily. That is about 50 percent of the federal workforce. Therefore, the Board Chairman demanded, the federal government should kick in with its "fair share" to support the system, as do Maryland, Virginia, and the local D.C. governments. Evans pinpointed $300 million as the fed's "fair share."

Committee Chairman John Mica (referenced above) did his share of shouting and fist-pounding, and called the nation's second-busiest subway "a screwed-up mess," but offered little in the way of suggestions other than to vow his Florida constituents were not about to lick up the tab.

While Wiedefeld seems to have backed off the six-month shutdown, he did say he could not rule out shut-downs that would not be disruptive.

"Metro and the region [have] some hard truths to confront," he added.

Yes, and here's one of them

Officials have conducted 107 inspections of the system, including tracks, traction power, and its rail operation control center. Inspectors found 229 defects arguably including some going back to the operation's earliest days.

And here's another one.

It was way back in June of 2004 when this column reported that attendants at the Metro parking garages had been stealing money collected from Metro riders' parking fees to the tune of anywhere from a half million to a million dollars each year for about a decade.

WMATA and Penn Parking had been pointing the fingers of blame at each other. At the time, Metro was planning switch its parking fee collection to automation anyway , but to our knowledge, no one - NO-ONE - has made the effort to track down the thieves and bring them to justice or retrieve the stolen cash.

It was known, but -

Penn Parking President Lisa Renshaw called for a congressional investigation. Never happened. According to one of his aides, Congressman Chris Van Hollen read our column of that time reporting on all of this. I have no idea what, if anything, he did about it.

As part of her swan song, Renshaw said she said that in dealing with WMATA, she had "never, ever in all my life experienced so much waste in government," and that a transit system "that was set up for the public as a whole" is under management that "treats it like its own fiefdom.

Who ran off with the "fair share?"

Now a dozen years later, it appears justice was not done. And you would think these politicians and managers who in 2016 shout at each other and pound their fists on the table and shout at each other at hearings and talk about who's going to pay a "fair share" seem totally oblivious to the part of the "fair share" that went out the door years ago with suspected thieves -- at least five attendants, according to Metro Transit police years ago.

If Metro was paying $3.1 million to Penn Parking, then what responsibility did Penn Parking have for what was going on? Someday--if we should live so long, we may know who if anyone is on a fast track to the hoosegow, and who ended up in the witness protection program. Just don't hold your breath. We've got a subway system to fix.

Wes Vernon, a longtime member of the CRA, is also a longtime columnist for the High Green.