Photo by Kurt Raschke on Flickr.
Erek Barron and Marc Korman are members of Maryland’s House of Delegates, representing Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, respectively.
A 2012 federal statute requires the jurisdictions that make up WMATA to establish a safety oversight commission to oversee Metrorail safety. This will succeed the discredited Tri-State Oversight Committee, a partnership between Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia that was supposed to oversee safety but has been blamed for many of Metro’s safety-related woes.
Recently, the federal government has increased its pressure on the jurisdictions to create the new safety oversight commission by having the Federal Transit Agency take over Metro safety oversight and threatening federal funding should the commission not be stood up by early 2017.
As state legislators that would have to vote on establishing the commission and funding it, we support meeting the federal requirement but would like to go even further in bringing real improved oversight to Metro by merging Metro’s Inspector General (IG) into the commission.
The Federal government is rightfully concerned about Metrorail safety. Unfortunately, we know that Metro’s issues go far beyond safety and include significant issues related to fiscal management, operations, communications, and more. We support creating the safety commission as required, but why just check that box for the feds when a relatively simple, structural move may succeed where other oversight efforts have failed?
Metro oversight is complicated by the multi-jurisdictional nature of the system: the Federal officials, Maryland, DC, and Virginia each have a role to play—and we have worked from our perch at Maryland’s WMATA-Metro Work Group to improve oversight—but with so many players the buck stops with no one. In theory, Metro’s Board is charged with oversight, but how is that working out?
The Metro IG was established in 2007 out of the old Auditor General’s office. It was created by WMATA’s Board and then passed into law by the jurisdictions as part of the WMATA compact. But it has never lived up to its potential and many of its recommendations, including those related to safety, have been left unheeded. Moving the IG from WMATA to the new commission will place more oversight power in the hands of the new independent agency and help the IG grow from its historical background as just an auditor.
Congress passed the federal IG Act in 1978 amid historically low public confidence in government. Since then, IGs have been watchdogs, annually saving billions in public funds and providing an $18 return on every dollar invested.
But Metro’s IG is chained to an institutionally ineffective board, unable to harness its potential. Its limited powers are vague and subject to change by board resolution. And, its budget and resources are weak, especially its short-staffed investigatory arm. Several factors prove critical to an effective IG, including independence, jurisdiction, investigatory and enforcement powers, and complainant incentives and protections. We have a lot of thoughts on how to shape the IG position under the commission in a way that positions it to do the best job possible with regard to each of these factors, and they boil down to allowing the IG to operate as it truly sees fit, having it oversee all of Metro, including the board, and giving it the ability to actually take action if it finds a problem.
We have heard a few criticisms of the proposal to move and empower the IG, all of which are unavailing.
First, we are told that the IG is responsible for supervising Metro’s annual independent audit of financial reporting and is one of just three Metro employees that reports directly to the Board. But Metro has a Chief Financial Officer and Audits and Investigations Committee that can provide those functions and, if necessary, the IG could continue to do so as well from its new position. Moreover, the Board functions no better institutionally now than it did before it had an IG reporting to it.
Second, some observe that the safety commission will only have oversight of Metrorail, not the entire Metro enterprise. But so what? The Metro IG does not have regulatory power now. Reports unrelated to safety can still be transmitted to the Metro Board—and hopefully more robust reports will be acted upon in a more transparent and effective matter—but at least those related to safety will be implemented and enforced through the new power of the oversight commission.
Third, critics note that this does not solve every problem Metro has like the lack of a dedicated funding source or an insufficient quantity of track inspectors. Fair enough, but Metro is in a significant hole and no one reform is going to solve every issue.
Fourth, we have heard some fret that this threatens a federal mandate to establish a safety commission. But the federal government should embrace efforts by the jurisdictions not to just meet the bare minimum requirements but actually put forward a reform that could significantly improve Metro oversight and performance. Indeed, many elected officials in Maryland and Virginia do not appreciate Metro and this reform would be an important step in demonstrating that the region is getting serious about fixing Metro, not just careening from one crisis to the next.
We are both supporters and users of Metro. This proposal is not designed to make the work of the General Manager or Metro staff more difficult. Our vision is for a truly useful oversight agency. We are committed to doing the right thing for Metro, not the most expedient thing.
We must do something—both the federal government and the region demand it, so why not make it meaningful. For a better Metro, unleash the IG.