Leaders voice opinions on SafeTrack

Leaders voice opinions on SafeTrack

By: Emily Blackner, The Sentinel

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As Metro prepares for a vigorous year of track work, designed to address safety concerns, leaders throughout the region are making their voices heard as to what the transit agency needs to do next to right itself.

On May 19, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld released the final version of his SafeTrack maintenance plan for above-ground track work. The final version was originally due May 16, but after the draft of the plan was released, the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) raised concerns that the plan did not tackle those repairs FTA deemed most urgent early enough in the process. That prompted Wiedefeld and his staff to re-work the plan.

Track work on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines was moved up from August in the initial draft to next week, beginning June 4.

An FTA spokesperson said the agency had signed off on the updated SafeTrack plan.

“FTA has reviewed, provided input to and approved the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) SafeTrack plan released today. The plan gives first priority to the FTA identified track locations where urgent repairs are required to reduce the risk of smoke and fire events,” he said.

SafeTrack consists of 15 “surges” of intense track work, which Wiedefeld said will enable the system to condense three years of work into a single year. Areas addressed include rail ties, ballast and other infrastructure components. The plan will see significant service disruptions as line segments are shut down for days or weeks for repairs. WMATA will also begin work at 8 p.m. rather than 10 p.m., resulting in single tracking, and the system will no longer be running until 3 a.m. on the weekends, instead closing at midnight.

“I am encouraged by the region’s response to SafeTrack and appreciate the support of business and community leaders, jurisdictional officials, our Congressional delegation and most importantly the riders, who have rallied to help us get through this challenging work,” Wiedefeld said in announcing the plan.

Leaders at all levels of government are weighing in on the plan, as well as what can be done to fix the national capital’s subway system in the long-term.

County Executive Rushern Baker III said he views SafeTrack as a sign that safety is taking a greater priority at Metro.

“Over the past several months it has become very clear to leaders around this region that we must invest and fix our Metro system and we must do it now. I welcome today’s announcement from Metro of their new SafeTrack Plan as a potential path forward,” he said in a statement. “I commend General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for starting this important conversation. It is clear this will not be easy and there will be some inconvenience, but at some point we will have to think and operate differently in order to have a system that is reliable and safe.”

At the federal level, members of Congress from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia have been meeting with Metro staff, including Wiedefeld, about the plan, as well as the system’s woes in general.

On May 18, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8) and their colleagues in the House met with Wiedefeld to discuss SafeTrack, the delegation’s second meeting since Wiedefeld took up the general manager post in November 2015.

Hoyer, the House’s minority Whip, said he will work to secure additional funding for Metro, which is something Metro Board Chair Jack Evans has been trumpeting as a solution to the agency’s problems.

“The safety and reliability of Metro continues to be one of my top priorities. I will continue to communicate with Mr. Wiedefeld to make sure Metro institutes a culture of safety for its riders and to support federal funding to help with the system’s infrastructure needs,” Hoyer said.

Van Hollen focused on the culture within Metro itself, saying the system needs to change to regain the trust of its riders.

“As recent incidents and years of declining reliability have shown, a culture of safety has been sorely lacking at the agency. Significant work is needed to restore public faith in the system, and WMATA must be transparent and accountable throughout this process,” he said.

Wiedefeld himself has stressed that safety will be a priority throughout Metro. He recently called a meeting with 600 of the system’s managers to stress the importance of safety. Such a meeting was unprecedented in Metro’s 40-year history. Last Friday, Wiedefeld also fired 20 Metro managers, more than a third from the Metrorail side of operations.

State-level leaders, too, are weighing in on Metro’s problems.

Delegate Erek Barron (D-24) founded a WMATA Metro work group with Del. Marc Korman (D-16) when he arrived in Annapolis in January 2015. He said the group meets weekly during session and as needed outside of those three months.

“We felt like we could provide some additional oversight,” Barron said. “We know there are a lot of issues in terms of safety and value and customer service.”

Barron said he supports SafeTrack, but wants Metro to make sure it is implemented properly and that the public is well informed about the upcoming service disruptions. He would also like to see town hall meetings, he said.

As Metro moves forward with SafeTrack, Barron and Korman released a list of potential solutions, including changes to the board of directors, the creation of station task forces within the communities surrounding Metro stations to keep them nicer, improving the safety culture and looking at other funding sources, including potentially vendors in or around stations or a dedicated funding source.

Barron also said the District, Maryland and Virginia are in the process of developing a new Metro compact between their respective governments which would include a new safety oversight agency.

“The legislature will probably be in the middle of determining what that looks like,” he said.

Such a compact could include governance changes and a dedicated funding proposal, although he admits the latter would be “a very hard sell.”

“Finances are tight. It’s not something that anybody has an appetite for, but Metro is so important to the region,” Barron said.

He said the announcement about an agreement could come in the next few weeks.

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