- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

A shortage of skilled workers to repair Metro's aging rail system has forced the transit authority to go more than $9.5 million over its overtime budget since the spring of 1999.

Metro has about 155 job vacancies, many of them in its rail and operations support divisions, which handle Metro's Emergency Rail Rehabilitation Program and its effort to repair its escalators and elevators.

District of Columbia Council member Jim Graham, Ward 2 Democrat and a voting Metro Board member, has expressed alarm over the vacancies and the cost overruns they have created.

"We've got to get these positions filled, not which of least is for the overruns for overtime," Mr. Graham said during Thursday's board meeting.

"In hindsight, it appears that we underbudgeted overtime costs because we didn't expect [additional costs]," said Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann.

"When the budget was put together two years ago, no one thought we would have such problems in April of 1999," he added.

Beginning with the 1999 Cherry Blossom Festival, Metro rail cars suffered massive and unexpected malfunctions that continued well into the spring of that year, Mr. Feldmann said, noting that hundreds of cars needed emergency repairs.

The transit authority has spent more than $18 million over budget in its Emergency Rail Rehabilitation Program and its escalator/ elevator repair program about $8.7 million over budget for materials and more than $9.5 million over budget for overtime pay.

But revenue from increased ridership has offset cost overruns, putting Metro $16 million in the black, Mr. Feldmann said. In addition, Metro has saved more than $7 million in benefits payments because of the job vacancies.

Still, the vacancies at Metro threaten to slow the pace of repairs to the rail system, elevators and escalators.

In July, Metro officials told the board that they don't have enough skilled workers to fulfill the agency's promise of repairing all escalators that aren't working properly.

Mr. Feldmann said Metro might not get all the workers it needs to reduce overtime costs.

"It's real simple: If we have vacancies and we don't have the full complement of employees to put out a safe system, you're going to have to rely on overtime," he said.

"We're having challenges getting employees," he said, adding that the escalator/elevator repair program is having the most trouble getting qualified mechanics.

As of June 30, more than 20 jobs were open for escalator/elevator repair work. In August, the board urged Metro to speed up its work, requiring even more workers in an already tapped-out labor market.

"We're having to go out of the country to get escalator mechanics," Mr. Feldmann said.

He said Metro is working on next year's budget and overtime will be considered in assembling the spending plan. "It's certainly something we need to look at when we do future budgets to see if this is an anomaly and not normal," Mr. Feldmann said.

Metro has weathered a deluge of problems this year, from reports of a high-priced consultant hired without the board of directors' knowledge to a spate of tunnel fires that have hampered commutes and raised safety concerns.

The incidents have prompted increased scrutiny by Congress and the federal government, and Metro already has undergone two federal audits this year.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee on the District, has called for hearings next month on Metro's safety and procurement policies.

In a letter to the General Accounting Office on Friday, Mr. Davis asked the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, to audit the transit authority's procurement and management procedures.

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