Feds Forced to Set Priorities for Washington Subway

The Washington Metro passenger safety fiasco (see: America’s Subway: America’s Embarrassment?) has only gotten worse. On May 10 the Washington Post  reported the federal government has twice threatened to close the system if the Washington Area Metropolitan Transportation Authority (WMATA) failed to “take actions to keep passengers safe.” U.S. Secretary Anthony Foxx.

According to the Post, “The most recent incident to illicit that threat came last Thursday after an arcing insulator exploded near a platform at Federal Center SW. The explosion, a fireball followed by a shower of sparks, was captured by Metro’s security cameras. On Tuesday, at a sit down with reporters, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx described his reaction to the video. ‘It was scary.’”

But Foxx went on to say that “even more worrisome was Metro’s conduct following the incident.” Foxx indicated that Metro’s response had not been sufficient in view of the seriousness of the incident.”

On the next day (May 11), Federal Transit Administration Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers took the unusual action of a letter to WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, itemizing and prioritizing the necessary repairs: “I am therefore directing WMATA to take immediate action to give first priority to these repairs.” The letter is reproduced below.

On the same day, the Post editorialized (“Metro’s Dangerous Complicity”): “An overhaul in Metro’s culture is what is needed; that begins with accountability.

Not only is this an embarrassment for America’s Subway (as a previous Washington Post article suggested, see “Metro sank into crisis despite decades of warnings”), but the necessity for the nation’s second most patronized subway, in perhaps the nation’s most sophisticated metropolitan area, having to be directed (appropriately) by a federal agency is even more astounding.

At the same time, it is important to note the extraordinary nature of this case. There are many Metro (heavy rail) systems in the nation, as well as many light rail and commuter rail systems. Nor should it be assumed that Metro’s burden is anything more than a result of its own failures. Somehow, for example, New York’s subway manages to safety carry more than 10 times as many riders. None of the many systems has ever required such intervention by the federal government on passenger safety, which is perhaps the most basic requirement of transportation systems. This is not “business as usual.”