The head of Washington, D.C.’s beleaguered Metrorail system recently told Congress his agency “had to move and move quickly” in launching an accelerated infrastructure maintenance program in 2016, despite lacking a budget or management plan to guide what could be a $118-million effort to restore the 118-mile system.
A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office study was critical of how the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority planned and implemented the repair program, known as SafeTrack. But at a March 29 hearing before the House government operations subcommittee, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said the report “does not clearly express the true level of crisis and safety challenges” the agency faced when the program began in May 2016.
At that time, Metro was experiencing near-daily service disruptions, due partly to lax infrastructure maintenance, and the threat of a shutdown from then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
GAO’s study said WMATA lacked sufficient track infrastructure data to set properly objectives and priorities. GAO criticized WMATA for not fully evaluating alternatives for carrying out SafeTrack “to determine which approach may have resulted in greater efficiencies, lower costs or less disruption for riders and local jurisdictions.”
Wiedefeld said WMATA is working to address GAO project management recommendations and adopting technologies to improve inspections and record-keeping. Later in April, the agency will present cost estimates for long-term system upkeep. SafeTrack costs and Metro’s declining ridership have widened the agency’s budget gap. WMATA will seek to bridge it with fare hikes, service cuts and layoffs, starting this summer.
Subcommittee members voiced interest in helping WMATA to address a funding model that Wiedefeld calls “unsustainable,” but many uncertainties remain. The agency and a key labor union local have yet to agree on a replacement to the contract that expired last summer.
Localities that Metro serves have been wary about raising contributions to WMATA operations.