- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2000

Metro General Manager Richard White said yesterday the management mistakes detailed in a recent federal audit of his agency are minor concerns compared to the real problem facing Metro: An aging system that needs a multibillion infusion of tax dollars just to prevent service from deteriorating further.

Mr. White told reporters and editors at a luncheon meeting at The Washington Times that stories published Tuesday and yesterday in The Times about a critical federal audit were misleading.

"The average person who reads the newspaper would think it is Camp Run Amok and it is not Camp Run Amok," said Mr. White. "This report is not a three-alarm fire."

The Times reported Tuesday that a Federal Transit Authority audit of Metro procedures found that the transit agency has deficiencies in more than half the federal regulations covering procurement.

That story, coming after months of breakdowns, accidents and fires on the system, prompted Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, to announce that Congress would likely schedule hearings to look into Metro's problems.

Mr. Davis, chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on the District of Columbia, told The Times the FTA audit is "cause for alarm."

That, Mr. White said yesterday, is simply not the case.

"If [the FTA] had concerns about us, they would have rung us up right away. My assessment of this is that we came out with a pretty good checkup from the FTA. That was their assessment not our assessment," Mr. White said.

The possibility of congressional hearings, Mr. White said, has more to do with what he called unfair news stories than with any serious mismanagement of the $1.2 billion-a-year agency.

"Your paper chooses not to report their assessment that this is essentially a set of typical findings… . There's nothing unusual," said Mr. White.

The Times reported that pages 5 and 6 of the Report Summary Table in the FTA audit show that auditors found deficiencies in more than half of the 51 areas investigated.

But only nine of those categories with deficiencies exceeded federal allowances, said Mr. White. The other categories have problems, but those deficiencies, he said, are within federal standards.

"The bar seems to be set at almost 100 percent for us on everything," Mr. White said. "We perform 97 percent reliable rail service we get crucified … anywhere else in the country, that's great … but in Washington, D.C., it's got to be 100 percent."

Mr. White said of the more than 600,000 commuters who ride on Metro rails each day, only 3 percent 15,000 to 18,000 people experience problems or inconveniences.

There are Metro management practices that must be changed, Mr. White acknowledged, but he said many of those problems predate his arrival at the agency four years ago.

"The ship that we're trying to stop is an aircraft carrier that has been in motion for 20 years, 25 years, 30 years," said Mr. White, who said that he would change the culture of Metro when he took over in 1996.

Mr. White gave himself a grade of C-minus on turning Metro's culture around, saying that he is still working to improve the way the agency communicates and interacts with the public.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you that this place is going to be fixed in two or three years," he said.

But those problems, Mr. White said, shouldn't overshadow a transit system that successfully transports hundreds of thousands of riders safely and efficiently through the area each day.

And second-guessing Metro management, said Mr. White, does nothing to solve what he thinks is the real problem facing the system: trains, tunnels and other infrastructure that will need at least $10 billion worth of repairs and maintenance in the coming decades.

"We cannot expect that the system is going be able to perform the way the people have seen it perform in the last five or 10 years, unless we significantly reinvest in the system," Mr. White said.

Metro's long-range spending plan, which stretches through 2025, calls for an additional $6.4 billion in funding to pay for repairs and maintenance, but that still leaves the agency $3.6 billion short.

And those billions won't cover any expansion of the system. Rather, the money Mr. White is seeking will go to basic rehabilitation work on elevators, escalators and stations, along with overhaul of rail cars and buses.

Raising fares alone won't solve the problem either, Mr. White said, and he doesn't expect Metro to even consider a fare increase for two more years.

"We made a commitment not to raise fares until 2002," he said.

Mr. White acknowledged the past few months have been rough from a disastrous April 21 fire on the Blue-Orange Line near Foggy Bottom that left 273 persons trapped in a smoke-filled car for hours, to the recent FTA audit.

But despite the problems, Mr. White said he feels the relationship he has with Metro's five-member, trijurisdictional board is "secure."

Last month, Maryland members of the board exercised a jurisdictional veto a rare rebuke from the board that killed Mr. White's original request for a $1.85 million 60-day "action plan."

Instead, the board approved a scaled-back $700,000 plan to improve customer-service initiatives.

Both of Maryland's voting members Decatur Trotter and Cleatus E. Barnett made it known they did not like Mr. White circumventing the budget committee and "surprising" the board with the request for extra funds.

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