Metro ‘mediocrity’: House lawmakers dig into ridership, wheel woes

Ridership remains well below pre-pandemic levels

With more federal employees teleworking or otherwise shifting their commutes, Metro officials said the transit system will have to adapt.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
With more federal employees teleworking or otherwise shifting their commutes, Metro officials said the transit system will have to adapt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 9, 2022 at 4:37pm

Metro officials got tough questions Wednesday about the future of the “nation’s subway,” as members of a House Oversight subcommittee quizzed them about how the system may survive in an age with increased telework.

Before the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of peak-hour rail riders were federal employees, and it remains to be seen exactly how many of those workers will return to their old commutes.

“Will they come back? No one knows of course, but will they come back to the scale that we were? I doubt it,” said Paul J. Wiedefeld, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “As a region, we need to rethink what we want the system to be, but it does more than just serve those trips. It serves the entire community.” 

Wiedefeld, who announced he would retire this year, was joined by other Metro officials including the agency’s inspector general and a member of its board of directors. 

The hearing plowed some familiar terrain, as both Republican and Democratic members of the panel criticized the agency’s handling of a wheel issue on the still-grounded fleet of 7000-series cars that were pulled from service after a train derailed in October. They also wondered aloud about how the agency should be funded, and what the future might look like if the riders who once made up a big chunk of daily users never return. 

“I feel like I’m back at the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, except we’re not here at nine o’clock on Thursday night. So it’s much much better,” said Democrat Jennifer Wexton, whose House district encompasses some outer Washington suburbs and Loudoun County. 

 “We’ve found what plagues WMATA is a culture of mediocrity,” said Gerald E. Connolly, who chairs the Government Operations Subcommittee and also represents part of Washington’s Virginia suburbs.

He joined Wexton in getting assurances that the long-overdue Silver Line extension, which Connolly called his “baby,” would begin running by Labor Day.  

Subcommittee ranking member Jody Hice, R-Ga., asked officials how they planned to make up for lost ridership, which plummeted during the pandemic and remains at 21 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels for rail and 37 percent for bus. 

Wiedefeld speculated that people in the future might make fewer long-distance trips to work, but more short trips or reverse commutes. He pointed to Metro’s rail fare structure, which charges more for peak hours and longer trips, as something that may need to adapt. 

“Yes, WMATA is going to change,” just like other transit systems around the country, said board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg. But much of the development and redevelopment in the Washington region is centered within a quarter- or half-mile of Metro stations, he said, calling that a positive sign.

Regional-federal intersection

Like many things in Washington, the transit system sits at the intersection of regional and federal control. Of the eight voting members on its board, two are appointed by the federal government. The rest come from Maryland, Virginia and D.C.

The hearing highlighted that in-between status, starting with the attendance list. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland doesn’t sit on the subcommittee but popped in to say “Metro needs to be better,” along with other colleagues from the region’s suburbs. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is seeking the top spot on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress, teamed up with Connolly to act as co-host.

More than half of the system’s 91 rail stations serve federal facilities, like the Capitol or the Pentagon. 

The system received more than $2.4 billion in federal pandemic aid, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill included an annual investment of $150 million through 2030. But it still faces massive budget shortfalls in the coming years if ridership does not return. 

7000-series cars

While Democrats heaped praise on Wiedefeld, who will retire later this year after leading the agency since November 2015, they also offered frank words on Metro’s many woes, including “falsified track inspection reports, failure to document or investigate more than 3,000 criminal complaints from riders, and now a very difficult defect with 60 percent of the system’s rail car fleet,” as Connolly put it.

The 7000-series cars were slowly being reintroduced but were pulled again after new safety protocols were not followed, The Washington Post reported in December. On Jan. 13 Metro announced it would be at least another 90 days before the cars would return, allowing Metro to “focus on root cause analysis and acquire technology to measure 7000-series wheelsets.” 

The problem with the new cars, manufactured by Kawasaki, had been observed dating back to 2017, Metro Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington explained during questioning by Rep. Jamie Raskin. But they were handled as a warranty issue with the manufacturer and not run up the chain of command.

Raskin waxed poetic about how as a youngster the Metro expanded his world and how the system’s steel chariots transported him to prom. But he drove home the point that if the system isn’t safe, people won’t ride it.

The area native said he remembers when the Metro first opened. 

“I was in high school, and it was an absolute life changer for me. … I could go anywhere. I had my first date on the Metro,” the Maryland Democrat said. “And for me, it is the nerve system of our region. And so we’ve got to struggle through these hard times and make sure we’re adapting for the new times.”