- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2000

There are no signs of an imminent shake-up at Metro, the Washington region's mass transit agency. There should be.

In recent months several of Metro's top administrators have been embroiled in serious contracting irregularities and operations officials have been criticized for mishandling critical safety issues. To date one high-ranking official has stepped down. Francis X. Watson resigned June 12 as Metro's procurement chief following an investigation by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) into allegations of fraud and mismanagement. The FTA audit concluded Metro violated several federal contracting rules, including poor internal controls that allowed the costs of contracts to spiral upward. "In all," this newspaper's Jim Keary reported, "the FTA audit notes nine deficiencies in 55 areas of Metro's purchasing departments and recommends 11 changes to improve the transit authority's procurement controls. One of those recommendations was to eliminate Mr. Watson's job."

Spawned by a series of articles in The Times of cronyism and mismanagement, the FTA audit, and a separate inquiry by DOT's inspector general, tracked numerous contracts, including one that mushroomed from $100,000 to $333,065 without the approval of the Metro board. Questionable costs, for example, included a clerk who was paid $53 an hour and engineers $168 an hour.

Metro officials, to their credit, began tightening procurement procedures prior to the FTA launching its audit. But will revisions in policy be enough? Metro revised its safety policies following the April 20 fire near the Foggy Bottom Station on the Orange-Blue Line. In that blaze, which is still under investigation, Metro mistakenly tried to handle the blaze itself and failed to contact the D.C. Fire Department. Quick-thinking passengers using cellular telephones alerted the fire department. Since that frightening debacle Metro revised its policies to establish a clear chain of command in cases of such emergencies. Yet additional blunders occurred June 10 during a mock emergency drill. The drill was staged in Prince George's County, and the new rules called for that jurisdiction's fire department to be notified first. Instead, a dispatcher called the D.C. Fire Department, causing a 32-minute delay when nearby PG firefighters could have been on the scene in 90-seconds. Those embarrassing moments have Metro making additional revisions to a newly revised safety policy that was barely 2 weeks old.

If Metro were a city government instead of a cross-jurisdictional agency, the mayor would have fired some high-ranking folks by now to establish accountability. Instead, Metro is allowed to keep making adjustments and reforms as it goes. Somehow none of this seems like the safest and most efficient way to run a transportation system.

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