- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2016


Sooooo! Metro and other regional leaders are slated to spill the beans Friday and explain to taxpayers how they plan to tackle the many problems derailing our major transit system.

The No. 1 problem at Metro, officially known as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, seems to be its insular culture. Metro, keep in mind, is one of the largest employers in the national capital region.

Let’s attend to two striking examples. The first involves the union, specifically Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which is part of the AFL-CIO/CLC and has more than 12,000 members. Local 689 represents operators, clerical, paratransit and maintenance workers at Metro, and the D.C. streetcar workers.

When a dues-paying union member who works at Metro has a complaint, he or she turns to the union. If that member’s case goes to arbitration, a union-employed attorney represents the Metro employee. Union-paid attorneys also represent the union if the member’s complaint is against the union.

As a longtime Metro worker explained to me, the union represents “itself.”

SEE ALSO: Anthony Payne fatally run over by hijacked Metro bus in D.C.; Keith Loving charged

Hmm. Dues-paying members be damned.

The next example is Metro employment, which, as The Washington Times reported in a three-part series in 2012, has a “clubby culture,” and, as a station manager said, “They don’t want change. It’s go along to get along.”

More recently, in December, Washingtonian magazine quoted a Metro mechanic who underscored the look-the-other-way culture of the mass transit agency: “We’d report [safety violations] and then nothing would be done,” according to former mechanic Sherman Johnson (1983 to 2010). “Consciously or subconsciously, everyone at Metro knows they’ve got a job for life, unless they sit there and smoke crack in the middle of the platform.” (And crack cocaine is not cheap.)

It’s easy to understand why federal authorities stepped in — again — to help direct Metro toward the future. With each jurisdiction that Metro serves deciding what it wants to do with its funding, operational and authoritative powers, the union saw a green light and didn’t move with caution.

Metro enters its fifth decade this year, and people in all quarters are wondering what’s next, and for good reason. The rails have been with hard-hit with deadly and smoky occurrences, while incidents with Metrobus and MetroAcess, the discount service for the elderly and disabled, have largely gone unnoticed. But they won’t be for long.

When the new strategy for Metrorail is announced Friday, authorities will be mentioning how bus service is expected to pick up the slack — which is precisely what happens if a Metro station is closed, or a rail line is shut down, or if the entire rail system is shut because of a blizzard or safety issue — which we experienced this year before Metrorail actually turned 40.

At middle age, Metrorail is doing far more than it was born to do and no longer is suited to be all things to most people during most hours of the day. The tourists, special events and holidays are coming, which means it’ll be further stretched. The mechanical and managerial issues are front and center, as we saw during the smoke-fire incident at the Federal Center Metro Station on Thursday during rush hour.

That regional and federal authorities are pulling together a plan is good. Indeed, it’s been a long time coming.

However, Metro also needs to look in-house — at the union’s role and at who and what policies are working to ensure the entire system becomes efficient and effective.

In other words, it’s not just the rails.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]



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