Metro’s newest safety watchdog has “aggressive teeth,” a multimillion-dollar budget and a full staff in anticipation of the federal government ceding it oversight of the regional transit system, officials say.
David L. Mayer, CEO of the new Metrorail Safety Commission (MSC), told The Washington Times on Wednesday that he’s finalizing a $4.5 million annual budget of combined local and federal funding, and has hired specialists to oversee a range of subway operations — from surge capacity to signals and communications.
“This is one of those endeavors where failure is not an option,” Mr. Mayer told the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The MSC needs certification from the Federal Transit Administration before it oversees safety operations — a job the FTA took over in 2015 after a deadly Metro smoke incident. The MSC has applied for and anticipates a six-month hand-off process in which its inspectors “shadow” federal workers and gradually performs more of the work, Mr. Mayer said.
The safety commission’s formation is timely: A man who used a wheelchair went up an escalator at the Columbia Heights station died Wednesday when he tumbled down it. Metro confirmed the incident, which was first reported in a tweet by Martin Di Caro, former transportation reporter for WAMU Radio.
Earlier this week, an arbitration panel ordered Metro to reinstate a track inspector accused of falsifying reports by copying text from previous reports, as WTOP Radio first reported. The panel found that Metro had trained inspectors to copy reports unless switch measurements differed more than of an inch from previous inspections. That policy was revised after a 2016 derailment at the East Falls Church station.
The District, Maryland and Virginia each appointed two commissioners and one alternate to run the MSC, which will audit safety inspections and conduct its own. Mr. Mayer said the commission is independent of Metro and will have the power to fine the transit agency, direct it to fire employees, order investigations by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and even shut down the entire Metrorail system.
“We really do have some of the more aggressive teeth in the nation as far as state safety organizations go,” said Mr. Mayer, who once helmed the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Metro Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington said he’s “looking forward” to working with Mr. Mayer and “would welcome any referrals or investigations or audits to improve the system.” The OIG recently has staffed up its investigations department.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Metro Board member Christian Dorsey praised the MSC’s collaboration with Metro: “This is not going to be your stereotypical bad oversight organization.”
The safety commission’s chairman is Christopher Hart, a former NTSB chairman. Mr. Hart slammed Metro in 2015 for making “little or no progress” on improving safety since a 2009 head-on train collision near Takoma Park killed nine people and injured 80, WTOP Radio reported.
The NTSB directed the Federal Transit Administration to take over Metro safety in 2015 after faulty tunnel fans pushed smoke from a damaged third rail into a stranded passenger car for 30 minutes — injuring dozens and killing passenger Carol Glover, 61. Metro settled in July a $50 million lawsuit brought by Glover’s sons.
“We are encouraged by the progress [of MSC], not only for establishing Metro’s future safety oversight agency but for ensuring continued funding to all rail properties in the region, and we are working with FTA and MSC to move the process forward,” Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said Wednesday.
The FTA will make its decision on whether to certify MSC by April 15.