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By Daniel Niepow, Associate Editor
Last month, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) continued efforts to improve the safety and reliability of its subway system in the face of several challenges, including numerous smoke-related episodes in its tunnels. The agency has been working to bolster safety since a January 2015 smoke incident near the L'Enfant Plaza Station caused one fatality and more than 80 injuries.
The agency's safety problems led WMATA General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Paul Wiedefeld in March to take the unprecedented step of shutting down the D.C. area’s entire subway system for 29 hours to conduct emergency repairs.
Despite the shutdown, several issues persisted. For example, the agency endured two smoke incidents in one day in May after a similar incident occurred in late April. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which assumed safety oversight of the agency in October 2015, later criticized WMATA for its "slow and inadequate" response to last month's incidents.
To address the continuing string of problems, Wiedefeld on May 19 released a final version of his "SafeTrack" plan, which crams three years' worth of infrastructure maintenance into one year.
The plan calls for a combination of 15 long-duration track outages for key system segments and expanded maintenance time on weekends, weeknights and weekdays. Each of the 15 “safety surges” involve around-the-clock single tracking or complete shutdowns of selected track segments.
Nonetheless, state and federal leaders last month continued to pressure WMATA to rectify its problems. For example, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on May 25 issued an executive directive instructing transportation officials in his state to facilitate the creation of a commission to oversee safety at WMATA.
McAuliffe’s order also directs the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to review all of the agency’s rail accident investigations, inspect both public and nonpublic areas of the system, and assess the state of repair for all trains, tracks and other infrastructure.
In addition, a congressional hearing was held May 24 to address WMATA's recent safety issues, during which Wiedefeld and Acting FTA Administrator Carolyn Flowers faced a tough line of questioning.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held the hearing to determine ways to improve WMATA's safety and reliability. During his testimony, Wiedefeld said that some of the agency's issues stemmed from "decades of delayed maintenance and underfunding." Going forward, his main priorities will be safety, service reliability and fiscal management, he said.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) pressed Flowers on when the FTA would lift restrictions on WMATA’s ability to withdraw federal funds.
WMATA is awaiting reimbursement for $483 million in federal funding through the FTA, said Norton, noting that WMATA has followed the FTA’s recent safety directives and advisories.
"If they've done all they had to do, the burden shifts to FTA," Norton said to Flowers.
The FTA should soon wrap up the final steps in a verification process to remove certain restrictions, said Flowers.
At one point in the hearing, U.S. Rep John Mica (R-Fla.) threatened to privatize WMATA's management if Wiedefeld isn't able to make improvements, but the congressman said that the agency currently rests "in fairly good hands."
Toward the hearing's close, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) asked Flowers to suggest methods for ensuring money is spent on maintenance for future transit projects.
"Maintenance is never exciting," Esty said. "It's not sexy. But it is a disaster when the worst happens."