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House transit panel grills Wiedefeld, Flowers on WMATA funding, safety

By Daniel Niepow, Associate Editor

During a congressional hearing yesterday, legislators questioned Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and Acting Federal Transit Administrator Carolyn Flowers about the transit agency's funding concerns and their responses to longstanding safety problems.

Acting Federal Transit Administrator Carolyn Flowers
Photos: T&I Chairman Bill Shuster's Youtube account

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held the hearing to find ways to improve WMATA's safety and reliability.
At the start of the hearing, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) pressed Flowers on when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would lift restrictions on the WMATA's ability to withdraw federal funds. Since 2014, WMATA has been on "restricted drawdown," which limits its ability to use federal grant money.

WMATA is awaiting reimbursement for $483 million in federal funding through the FTA, said Norton, who serves as the subcommittee's ranking member. She also noted 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. "Given the need for every penny that WMATA can get, can you identify at what point WMATA will be able to return to normal restrictions and procedures for accessing the funds that Congress has appropriated to it?"

Flowers said her agency would wrap up the final steps in a verification process to remove certain restrictions within the next few weeks.

U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-Calif.) questioned whether WMATA's problems stemmed from management and maintenance issues rather than a lack of funding.

"How can we be focusing all of our attention on funding when [WMATA's] board has never let us know that they're not doing repairs because of funding?" Meadows asked Wiedefeld.

Wiedefeld, who was appointed head of the agency in November 2015, responded that he couldn't speak for the board's past actions. However, he said that his agency doesn't necessarily need more dollars, but a dedicated and sustainable source of funding.

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 he said that the agency currently rests "in fairly good hands."

"I'm rooting for you," Mica told Wiedefeld.

Mica also presented Wiedefeld with a tongue-in-cheek "certificate of appreciation" for firing 20 WMATA managers, a move that Mica said represented a step toward better government.

Wiedefeld dismissed the managers as part of his restructuring plan for WMATA, according to The Washington Post. He also met with 650 at-will employees to explain his priorities as WMATA's leader, which Wiedefeld said was the first such meeting in the history of the agency.

Paul Wiedefeld, general manager and CEO of WMATA
Photos: T&I Chairman Bill Shuster's Youtube account

"I do have the ability to let people go. We do have processes for that," Wiedefeld said at yesterday's hearing.

On the issue of funding, Mica said that 60 percent of WMATA's capital funds come from the federal government, an amount which he said is one of the highest in the nation for transit agencies. Additionally, WMATA has $783 million in unspent funds, according to Mica, who highlighted the same figure at another congressional hearing last month.

Toward the close of the hearing, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) asked Flowers for suggestions on methods for ensuring that money gets spent on maintenance for future projects in the United States. Esty cited WMATA as an example of what happens when this doesn't occur.

"We never put aside money for maintenance," Esty said. "Maintenance is never exciting. It's not sexy. But it is a disaster when the worst happens."

Flowers replied that the FTA ensures that a budget for maintenance is included in financial forecasts for any new transit projects.

The day before the hearing, trains running on WMATA's Red Line experienced delays due to two arcing insulators at the agency's Friendship Heights Station. The agency has endured a string of similar incidents within recent weeks, including two smoke-related episodes in one day earlier this month.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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