Metro has to do better on safety, local and federal governments, riders, and many others all agree. But while the federal government is pushing for safety, some say it’s also a part of the problem.

Unhelpful image from Shutterstock.

At a regional “summit” on Metro’s future on March 30, Leif Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), blasted the Federal Transit Administration’s relationship to WMATA and other transit systems around the nation.

Nobody can call Dormsjo a WMATA “apologist.” From the moment he took over DC’s transportation agency, he’s been calling for reforms at Metro. A year ago, he said, “WMATA needs to hire and fire better, manage its capital projects better, follow accounting principles better, and communicate with the public better.”

Dormsjo also has called for Metro to focus on safety and reliability. At the summit, he praised new General Manager Paul Wiedefeld for emphasizing just those two factors and getting “back to basics.” Last year, when former safety head Jim Dougherty chafed at FTA oversight, Dormsjo rebuked him, defending the FTA’s involvement.

But when it comes to fixing problems, he said in March, the FTA is not acting like a partner.

“Every other mode of transportation has better safety oversight relationship with the federal government than transit and the FTA,” he said, listing freight, aviation, highways, and other forms of transportation, each of which has its respective “modal administration” inside USDOT. Those departments oversee safety but also are “partners” in fixing problems, said Dormsjo.

Not FTA. Instead, he said, FTA sits back and criticizes transit agencies for missteps but doesn’t try to help find solutions. “It’s always easier to knock someone down than pick them back up,” he said, and FTA is not a “collaborative partner.”

“I wish the current administration would extend their hand to the nation’s transit system,” said Dormsjo. He suggested FTA help work out solutions to problems and then apply them to other transit properties across the nation.

Photo by Gen Kanai on Flickr.

This is a common complaint

Other transportation officials have said similar things privately before, and about more than just safety. FTA also oversees the procurement procedures of transit agencies and monitors their actions to make sure they meet federal rules for grants.

One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, relayed the story of a transportation conference where the FTA’s representative on a panel kept lecturing agencies on how to achieve compliance with federal rules. That FTA speaker, he said, never talked about helping agencies reach that compliance.

If the FTA were less “rigid” in its interpretation of regulations, said Dormsjo at the March 30 panel, that could save transit agencies a lot of money in things like buying vehicles.

A former transportation executive in the region, who also wasn’t willing to speak on the record, said, “I’ve never found the FTA to be helpful. They are custodians of money, not advocates for projects. They never act like they are trying to help you; they usually act like you’re being difficult.”

Sometimes it seems as though the FTA treats the nation’s transit more like a reality TV show than a vital public service. They sit at the judges’ table, watch the agency’s performance, and lob criticisms.

The FTA put WMATA in a sort of financial penalty box, called “restricted drawdown,” in 2014 after discovering weaknesses in financial controls. But over two years later, the penalty hasn’t been lifted.

Maybe that’s for good reason, if Metro’s internal controls aren’t satisfactory, though that’s not clear from public information; board chairman Jack Evans has claimed WMATA has improved and deserves to be let out of the penalty box. An Inspector General’s report found that “inconsistencies in the way [FTA] regional offices enforce the rules … meant [WMATA] faced longer delays in receiving reimbursements than the other two transit agencies examined.”

Even if WMATA isn’t ready to go off restricted drawdown, the FTA ought to make it a high priority to help WMATA get there, in whatever way it can. Perhaps FTA really is doing that (it’s not in the public record), but if it is, based on off-the-record statements, that’s not typical.

Nobody questions that Metro has to do better on safety and management procedures, and it’s right for FTA to push for improvements. Problems, like the fire last week near Friendship Heights, are Metro’s failings and Metro’s responsibility to clean up. However, to do so requires teamwork from every other stakeholder as well, and the federal government needs to see its role that way, not just as a judge but a partner.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.