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D.C. Metro Hearing to Address L’Enfant Incident and Broader Problems

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Members of Congress will examine the safety of the capital region’s Metro system this week to let local and federal transportation officials know Congress is keeping an eye on the response to the deadly incident at the L’Enfant Plaza metro stop in January.  

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing Friday titled, “D.C. Metro: Is There a Safety Gap?” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. — chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, which focuses on D.C. issues — told CQ Roll Call he will also be meeting with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser the day before the hearing. A Bowser administration official said they set up the meeting “well before Friday’s hearing was scheduled.” Lawmakers are not expecting to learn much new information about the January incident during the hearing due to the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation.  

“I think basically what the hearing will do is put them on notice that Congress is looking over their shoulder and that Congress is very interested in it,” Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said Monday in the Speaker’s Lobby. “And that we are prepared to act if necessary.”  

Cummings is a member of the capital region delegation who met with NTSB and Washington Area Metro Transit Authority officials following the deadly incident. On Jan. 12, a southbound Yellow Line train stalled, and the train and the tunnel filled with smoke as more than 200 passengers waited for emergency responders to arrive. Dozens of passengers were hospitalized and Carol I. Glover, 61, of Alexandria, Va., died of acute respiratory failure due to smoke exposure.  

The District of Columbia’s delegate, and members of Congress from Maryland and Virginia, said congressional oversight was necessary , pointing to WMATA’s service to the nation’s capital, significant federal funding in the Metro system, and their scores of constituents who ride the Metro every day.  

Federal lawmakers will once again demand answers . Hearing witnesses include NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart; Mortimer L. Downey, chairman of the 
WMATA board of directors; Edward R. Mills, an assistant D.C. fire chief; and Jonathan Rogers, one of the passengers on the Yellow Line train.  

The NTSB chairman declined to address a D.C. Council roundtable on the accident on Feb. 5. The Washington Post reported that Hart sent a letter to the D.C. Council urging participants not to disclose information that would tamper with the investigation. Meadows said Monday he doubted the NTSB would reveal much new information during the congressional hearing.  

“What we’ll hopefully learn is a little bit more about their timeline,” Meadows said Monday in the Speaker’s Lobby. “Certainly they’re not going to jump to any conclusions until they’ve completed their investigation. But I think that is one aspect of a broader scope of what we need to be addressing.  

“I think it needs to be broader than just this one issue,” Meadows also said, “because this one issue, while horrific and a real safety concern and could have been an even greater tragedy, it highlights the fact that a lot of people are concerned overall with the condition of the Metro.”  

For Meadows, the Friday hearing will wrap up a week with a focus on D.C. He told CQ Roll Call he will meet with Bowser Thursday and hopes to establish a “good working relationship” with the administration.  

A Bowser administration official said Tuesday that the mayor will have several other meetings on Capitol Hill Thursday. “Like the mayor’s previous meetings on the Hill, the focus is building relationships and discussing ways the mayor can work with Congress on projects and issues that benefit the District’s residents,” the official said.  

Meadows will also learn about D.C. Metro issues prior to the hearing by taking to the tunnels himself. He and a handful of staffers will ride various Metro lines over the coming days to experience firsthand the other problems he has heard about, which include broken escalators and trains that do not run on schedule.  

“In terms of what created [the January incident], I don’t expect to get a whole lot of new out of that,” Meadows said. “But I do expect that with the hearing, there will be a number of other issues that come out. Part of the reason why I’m riding on the Metro is so that we’ll have plenty of things that we can address for that particular hearing.”  

Meadows also commended the regional delegation for uniting after the incident and seeking answers. And some members are still working to address the problems that led to passengers being trapped in the smoke-filled tunnel.  

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., sent a letter Monday to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, urging them to discuss Metro emergency response training for regional firefighters. The council is a nonprofit association that unites regional leaders to discuss issues affecting the jurisdictions.  

Mikulski pointed to revelations that Metro emergency response training was not mandatory for firefighters, and only a small percentage of firefighters participated in the training.  

“Every firefighter should be required to attend training at Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center and Emergency Management Facility,” Mikulski wrote. “This should be a requirement during their initial training and then re-certification should be required.”  

Cummings said he hopes to learn about the steps WMATA has taken to address some of the problems that came to light after the incident, including issues with radio communications, ventilation systems and emergency response training.  

“I imagine we’ll get an update,” Cummings said, “but the thing that I’m going to be looking for is what are they doing right now to make sure that the system is safe.”  

Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.

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