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Lawmakers Urge Changes Ahead of WMATA Safety Report

Mikulski called for better Metro management. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Mikulski called for better Metro management. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Members of Congress representing the national capital region are urging Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to take seriously safety recommendations from the Federal Transit Administration, which is releasing a comprehensive report on WMATA’s safety and management Wednesday. Representatives from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia were briefed on the agency’s findings Tuesday. The FTA report was conducted after a deadly Jan. 12 incident in which passengers were trapped in a smoke-filled tunnel at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. One woman died from smoke inhalation. The National Transportation Safety Board also released a report last week , urging WMATA to take “immediate action” to address safety issues.  

“Metro still needs to make significant progress. [FTA] will come out with their significant number of recommendations tomorrow and they will be focusing on safety and financial management,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the dean of the delegation, said at a June 16 briefing. “That’s what we’ve been focusing on: safety and financial management. They will be talking about the fact that they need additional staff, additional training, additional oversight, additional vigorous, vigorous management. And we will be supporting them.”  

Mikulski was joined by her fellow Maryland Democrat, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, and Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, following their briefing with FTA officials.  

The senators said the report dictates a failure of leadership at WMATA and a failure to adhere to some of its own safety standards. FTA requested that the lawmakers not reveal specifics about the report, as the recommendations are intertwined.  

But the senators warned of a scathing review of WMATA’s safety and management. The transit agency has been without a long-term general manager and CEO for several months, after Richard Sarles retired in January.  

The senators encouraged WMATA to bring in a new team, including a “turnaround specialist” to right the agency. Cardin elaborated after the press conference that, “A turnaround specialist is a person who’s not necessarily skilled in the mission of the agency, but understands that in order to accomplish the mission of the agency, things have to change. So he starts, or she starts, with the concept that nothing’s off the table, that anything can be done in order to accomplish the mission.”  

Despite the impending security recommendations in the report, the lawmakers were assured Metro is safe. “What we have been told is Metro is safe to ride,” Mikulski said. “Metro has made improvements but they have more improvements to make.”  

Mikulski, who is ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, joined her fellow senators in calling for full federal funding for Metro. The House voted to cut federal funding by $50 million, or one-third of its federal allocation, last week.  

“We’re also going to have a clear message to our colleagues. And that is: Don’t make it more difficult for Metro to do its work,” said Cardin. “Cutting funds will not solve the problem.” Mikulski noted the Senate panel is expected to mark up its own transportation funding bill next week, on June 25. “The fiscal funding and appropriation for the Metro is on track now,” Mikulski said. “From the Senate side, we will be moving the money for Metro a week from tomorrow.”  

But, now that Republicans are in charge of both chambers, the lawmakers could face tougher opposition to full funding, especially in light of the recent safety and mismanagement reports.  

Kaine noted that the regional lawmakers have some key allies in their fight for full Metro funding: congressional staffers.  

“We have 535 offices of senators and members of Congress that have staffs filled with people who rely on Metro,” Kaine said. “And so the advocacy of the people who use it who work for the members is really important.”


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