At Subcommittee Hearing, Members Call on WMATA Leadership to Address Culture of Mediocrity, Prioritize Rider Health and Safety
Washington, D.C. (February 9, 2022)—Today, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton held a hearing examining the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) responsibility to provide safe and reliable transit service to the National Capital Region.
“This subcommittee has a long record of sustained oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). We have found what plagues WMATA is a culture of mediocrity. As the system has jumped from crisis to crisis, this culture of mediocrity has been a common theme – falsified track inspection reports, the failure to document or investigate more than 3,000 criminal complaints from riders, and now a disastrous defect with 60 percent of the system’s railcar fleet that was allowed to languish for four years,” said Chairman Connolly in his opening statement. “Our goal is to help WMATA leadership and overseers get to a culture of excellence within the system that improves the safety and reliability of Metro.”
The Subcommittee heard testimony from Paul J. Wiedefeld, General Manager of WMATA; Geoffrey Cherrington, Inspector General of WMATA; Paul Smedberg, Chair of the Board of Directors for WMATA; David L. Mayer, Chief Executive Officer of WMATA; and David Ditch; Policy Analyst, The Heritage Foundation.
Members highlighted the historic investments Congress has made in public transportation systems across the country, and underscored the need for robust oversight of WMATA, which has received federal funding for both its operations and capital improvements.
- “The federal government has a strong stake in the future health of WMATA, our national capital’s transit backbone. More than one-third of all Metrorail stations are located on federal property serving federal facilities, and during normal operations federal employees represent approximately 40 percent of Metrorail's peak period customers,” said Chairman Connolly.
- In her opening statement, Congresswoman Holmes Norton said, “In order to retain the benefits of this public transportation network for individuals, families, businesses, and the federal government, we must regularly evaluate Metro’s funding, operations, governance, and oversight.”
Members questioned the witnesses about recent and long-term safety issues that continue to plague WMATA, and the steps leadership is taking to prioritize the health and safety of riders.
- In response to questioning from Congressman Raskin about the failure to report safety issues regarding the 7000 series railcars to the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, Mr. Wiedefeld said, “What we need to do is create, in effect, anything we feel has a safety component — meaning not just the mechanical people or any other operations people whether bus or rail — that basically that then is flagged up the food chain both on the management side but also with the MSC, with our safety office, and with our internal quality control office. So that’s what we’re creating — in effect, moving a lot of things from the paper side to the digital side so we can monitor this live and do it on a number of other issues that potentially have safety-related issues.”
- In response to questioning from Rep. Beyer regarding better communication between WMATA and the WMSC, Mr. Smedberg explained, “We now are getting regular updates from the General Manager, in particular our Chief Safety Officer, the OIG, and others about the safety issues on a whole range of issues.”
- Mr. Wiedefeld said, in response to another question from Rep. Beyer, “The one thing that I have stressed with the WMSC, and what we have established with the OIG, is a single point of contact so that the General Manager can be aware of what is being requested, who [he] can turn to within our agency, and where we are on delivering this.”
- Regarding WMATA’s return to service plan for 7000 series railcars, Mr. Mayer said, “We look forward to WMATA developing a new return to service plan as specified in our orders. Our priority is safety, so we have not set a deadline for this plan. Investigative work continues on the cause of the wheel movement on the axles. This work may help inform WMATA’s new plan. We continue our frequent interactions with Metrorail and have open lines of communication. When a new plan is in place, we will closely monitor its implementation as we did for the prior plan.”
Members and witnesses discussed the vision for the future of WMATA—an essential mode of transportation for federal employees and a critical component of regional economic success.
- Majority Leader Hoyer said, “[General Manager] Wiedefeld’s successor will have to build on the efforts that he and the board and others have done to get us to a better place. This pandemic has placed a great challenge on all of us, obviously from a fiscal standpoint, but also from a safety, reliability, and confidence standpoint. We cannot and we will not give up on Metro.”
- Chairman Connolly said, “Failure of WMATA is not an option, and we can no longer afford a pervasive culture of mediocrity. The system will soon start service on the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport – an extension of rail service first envisioned in 1962 which has already given rise to the economic engine of the Commonwealth. Ridership headwinds, however, are projected well into the future with only 75 percent of riders returning to the system by Fiscal Year 2024.”
- “Metro is at a pivotal moment and must begin to address the critical questions that will determine the future of public transit in the Nation’s Capital…Input will be needed from all stakeholders, and I am confident that Metro’s Board of Directors will find a new General Manager who is ready to face these challenges and make the time commitment that will be needed to chart a new path and lead Metro forward,” said Mr. Wiedefeld.
- “We are thrilled that the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill will lead to increased funding for transit, which will support Metro’s capital program allowing us to both build on our progress in advancing safety and state of good repair, as well as make the transformational investments necessary to ensure the system modernizes and progresses in a sustainable and equitable way,” said Mr. Smedberg.