WASHINGTON, D.C. – Metro celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it has not aged well. 2016 was full of many challenges for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), as it dealt with train derailments, employees who falsified documents, and an unprecedented complete shutdown of the rail system and subsequent SafeTrack maintenance push. Agency […]
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Metro celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, but it has not aged well.
2016 was full of many challenges for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), as it dealt with train derailments, employees who falsified documents, and an unprecedented complete shutdown of the rail system and subsequent SafeTrack maintenance push.
Agency leaders acknowledged the year was a tough one. However Jack Evans, the chair of the WMATA Board of Directors for 2016, said the problems were helpful in conveying to the region just how bad things had gotten.
“One of the goals I had after becoming chair was to raise the profile of Metro, raise the profile in the sense of, here’s where we are, these are the problems we’re facing, this is the money we need to address the problems we have,” Evans said on Dec. 15. “There was an unawareness of how bad things were, what we were facing, and a denial in many respects. But I think that has now changed.”
“How bad things were” included years of maintenance backlogs, which contributed to a March 14 fire between the McPherson Square and Farragut West stations, served by the Orange, Silver and Blue lines. The cause was a “metal on metal” condition between the frayed live wires supplying electricity to the trains and the metal tunnels. A similar event in January 2015 resulted in the death of a passenger, and so Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld made the unprecedented decision to shut down the entire system for 29 hours, beginning March 15, to inspect every cable.
Maintenance issues also led Wiedefeld to institute SafeTrack, a program designed to condense three years’ worth of backlogged maintenance actions into six months. It has since been extended into 2017. SafeTrack necessitated line segment shutdowns throughout the system, including portions of the Orange, Silver and Blue lines just across the D.C. border from Prince George’s County from June 18 – July 3.
In addition to maintenance issues, inspection issues came to light in 2016. Just this month, it was revealed that half of Metro’s track inspectors had falsified inspection reports, some under pressure from superiors. Falsified reports contributed to the July 29 derailment of a train in West Falls Church, Va. Another train derailed on Sept. 1 in a rail yard.
Evans said falsifying reports is unacceptable and a remnant of the culture within the system which he and Wiedefeld are trying to change.
“A lot of the actions that take place… are left over from a culture where people did that kind of thing- where they falsified reports, they didn’t do their job,” he said.
Wiedefeld fired inspectors because of the incident. He has also dismissed other employees for cause this year, and fleshed out the management teams with “top flight” personnel, he said on Dec. 15.
He also pointed to other positive changes he has made in the organization since taking over. This year, Metro introduced a 15 minute grace period to enter and exit stations without being charged, a new fare option called SelectPass, which is designed for commuters, and a new app called BusETA to track the estimated arrival times of Metro buses.
“Station improvements have been ongoing in terms of lighting, sealing, power, Wi-Fi, things of that sort,” Wiedefeld added. “We have more police in the system now and they’re much more visible.”
He also said 2016 saw the completion of a new outreach initiative of his design so WMATA can get – and act on – customer feedback.
“It’s time to wrap up the customer accountability report initiative that I started last year, which introduced a number of things, which formed the basis of our agenda for ‘16, the vast majority of those – including the radio cell cable project agreement that actually we did start that service, or a segment of it, last week,” Wiedefeld said.
Metro also moved ahead with joint development projects in Prince George’s County, where the 15 stations are among the most underdeveloped in the entire region. The board approved a joint development agreement (JDA) for up to 200 dwelling units and 18,000 square feet of retail space at Capitol Heights Metro station; a term sheet (the precursor to a JDA) for 430 residential units and 11,900 square feet of retail space at College Park Metro station; and changes to the Greenbelt station that would be required if it was chosen as the site for the FBI headquarters. Public hearings were held for the Capitol Heights proposal and one for New Carrollton Metro station, which could see one of the parking lots replaced with office buildings, retail and residential development.
County leaders, such as board member Malcolm Augustine, the county executive and county council members like Vice-Chair Dannielle Glaros, have shown support for development around Metro stations.
“That is delivering money into the system, it is delivering riders into the system, and we’re partners here to make that happen,” Glaros told Metro officials at a council meeting in June.