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FTA: WMATA has a long way to go to improve safety

FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes testifies at the congressional hearing.
Photo – Federal Transit Administration

Although the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has made progress in improving the safety of its rail system, it remains a "long and difficult task" to establish a strong safety culture, federal officials said at a congressional hearing late last week.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittees on transportation and government operations held the Dec. 2 hearing to examine WMATA's "SafeTrack" accelerated maintenance program, which is designed to bring the system into a state of good repair.

Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Executive Director Matthew Welbes testified that his agency has seen improvements in many areas at WMATA since April, when the subcommittees held a similar hearing.

However, "significant work remains to bring the Metrorail system into a state of good repair, develop and improve WMATA's safety culture and improve WMATA's financial outlook," Welbes told members of Congress.

For example, the jurisdictions of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia still have not set up a new state safety oversight agency for WMATA. Instead, the FTA has been providing safety oversight for the agency since October 2015.

The FTA is requiring that the three jurisdictions establish the new safety oversight program no later than Feb. 9, 2017. The City Council of Washington, D.C., is expected to act on legislation to establish the program this month, while the Maryland and Virginia legislatures are slated to take similar action in their respective legislative sessions next year, Welbes said.

FTA could withhold up to $15 million in federal transit funding for communities throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia if they fail to create a new safety oversight agency for WMATA by the February 2017 deadline.

On the fiscal side, WMATA in July introduced a new financial management software system. Additional testing and validation of transactions from recent months is underway. Testing results will determine whether FTA can take WMATA off "restricted drawdown status," which it's been under since 2014.

Under restricted drawdown, invoices and related financial documentation must be verified by the FTA before federal funds are reimbursed to WMATA. The FTA has reimbursed $1.23 billion out of the $1.29 billion that WMATA has submitted for reimbursement since it's been on restricted drawdown status, Welbes said.

U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chair of the Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets, noted that WMATA's safety incidents continue to occur even as SafeTrack progresses.

"We are now halfway through the SafeTrack rebuilding schedule, but the system continues to be plagued by safety incidents on almost a weekly basis," Mica said. He listed several specific accidents, including the July 29 derailment on the Silver Line.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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