DC Metro rushed into yearlong repair program, watchdog finds

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Washington, March 14, 2017 | comments
Melanie Zanona

Washington Metrorail’s system rushed into its massive yearlong repair program known as "SafeTrack," according to a government watchdog report released Tuesday.

Metro “did not comprehensively collect and use data on the condition of its assets, analyze project alternatives, and develop a project management plan before starting work,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in the report.

In one example cited in the report, Metro did not comprehensively inspect its tracks before starting the maintenance program. The transit agency was forced to adjust its SafeTrack schedule late last summer after a train derailed in Northern Virginia.

But the report also noted that Metro did not follow best planning practices because the agency believed it needed to start work immediately to address pressing safety concerns.

General manager Paul Wiedefeld, who came into the role following a deadly smoke incident near the L’Enfant Plaza station, ordered an emergency shutdown of the entire rail system for 24 hours last spring after another alarming smoke incident.

Over the summer, Wiedefeld unveiled a yearlong plan to overhaul the system, requiring some partial shutdowns, continuous single-tracking and reduced service.

He argued that the GAO report this week "does not clearly express the true level of crisis the agency was facing almost one year ago."

“While [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] concurs with the findings and conclusions in the report and is already working to address the recommendations, we are concerned that the report does not accurately reflect the urgent safety state that demanded that we move as quickly as possible to start SafeTrack,” Wiedefeld said in response to the report.

The assessment was requested by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which said it is reviewing the findings of the new report.

"The Oversight and Government Reform Committee will be examining this report and other pressing issues for WMATA in an upcoming hearing. We look forward to working with WMATA, GAO, and other stakeholders to ensure that WMATA fully implements GAO's recommendations,” said committee leaders.

“We will also continue our oversight of Metro's ongoing effort to again become a safe, reliable transit system that serves the people of the Metropolitan Capital region, the federal workforce, and the 19.3 million visitors who come to their nation's capital each year."

The report estimates that SafeTrack will need another $40 million in fiscal year 2017 funding, with the final price tag for the program is pegged at $120 million.

Some positive findings include that Metro is using leading practices to improve the quality of its work; is committed to performing preventative maintenance; and is achieving substantial progress in bringing its track infrastructure into a state of good repair.

But the GAO emphasized that SafeTrack alone won’t resolve all of the systemic and organizational problems facing the agency.

“This report confirmed that SafeTrack will not fix all of WMATA’s systemic and organizational deficiencies,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), “But I welcome the GAO’s assessment that SafeTrack demonstrates that WMATA is ‘committed to preventative maintenance, including the repairing of track assets before they break and cause more cost and safety impacts on Metrorail riders.”

GAO is recommending that Metro develop a policy for planning future large-scale rehabilitation projects that includes using asset data and analyzing alternatives.

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