These days, top Metro officials are facing criticism from a number of places over the system’s safety problems, financial management issues and everyday operations.
Wednesday night was an opportunity for Montgomery County officials to register their frustrations.
The County Council Transportation Committee’s forum on Metro featured Jack Requa, interim general manager and CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and Rob Troup, deputy general manager of operations for Metro.
Council members praised Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments for coming up with detailed safety protocols after January’s L’Enfant Plaza incident, in which a passenger died from smoke inhalation and dozens were injured after a train stopped near an arcing insulator.
But they also questioned why many of those changes weren’t in place already and what Metro is doing to regain the trust of riders.
“It is something that many of us have sort of felt, perhaps incorrectly, that somehow WMATA just doesn’t get how serious this situation is and seems to point fingers…as opposed to owning responsibility and taking accountability and demonstrating to the public we are dead serious with respect to this,” council member Roger Berliner said.
Berliner was following up on comments from District 16 Del. Marc Korman, a representative of the Bethesda area who helped start a WMATA-Metro Work Group in Annapolis during this year’s legislative session.
“Riders recognize the problems and are voting with their feet,” Korman said. “What concerns me the most is WMATA’s response. Frankly, I don’t quite know how to shake WMATA from their complacency.”
Requa disagreed that WMATA is complacent, pointing mainly to safety improvements. Requa said WMATA has worked hard to make major safety changes after the fatal 2009 Red Line crash and is already putting into place changes related to the January arcing insulator incident before a federal government agency has released its full report.
“We’re not there yet. We understand that,” Requa said. “We know that we’ve got a lot of work to do. That’s our priority.”
The wide-ranging discussion, which lasted three hours and featured WMATA officials and board members, elected officials, a state transportation official and transportation experts, touched on everything from how the system is governed to the schedule for the escalator replacement at the Bethesda station.
Troup mentioned that the first escalator being replaced at the station could be reopened in two weeks, depending on final inspections.
A few minutes later, council members and WMATA board member Michael Goldman were discussing if WMATA’s Board of Directors should be modified from 16 part-time members to three transportation experts appointed from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Goldman said he agreed that the system’s governing structure could use some revisions to make its oversight more effective. All agreed that making such substantial changes would be a huge challenge and unlikely to happen any time soon.
Officials also addressed WMATA’s recently restarted search for a new permanent general manager.
The issue has been a sore subject for some.
In March, Metro's board suspended its search for a new general manager amid disagreements between board members and news that Metro hadn't yet submitted the required paperwork to the federal government for $400 million in reimbursements for system upgrades. Many are calling for the system's new general manager to take charge of Metro's apparent accounting issues in addition to improving service and safety.
District 17 Del. Kumar Barve, chairman of the Environment and Transportation Committee in the House of Delegates, said the new general manager “should have to” be able to deal with all of Metro’s issues.
“I understand that there are some people in the system that are engaging in what might be a fruitless debate over whether we need a general manager who’s better with respect to the finances of the system or the operations of the system,” Barve said. “I reject any artificial arguments such as those. It is important that the general manager be highly competent, whoever she or he is, in all aspects of the system.”