Politics & Government

Anthony Foxx, saying ‘no more excuses’ for D.C. Metro on safety, replaces 3 board members

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx speaks at the “Invest in America!” summit at the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, April 12 2016, in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx speaks at the “Invest in America!” summit at the Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, April 12 2016, in Washington, D.C. TNS

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stepped up his pressure on Metro to improve its safety performance Thursday by replacing three members of the transit agency’s board with experienced transportation safety professionals.

Foxx, who has been frustrated by Metro’s delay in creating a new safety oversight office, made clear in a written announcement that his impatience with the agency was growing.

“Given the continued urgency, we will be forced to use every available lever at our discretion to force action as soon as possible to improve safety for the traveling public,” Foxx said. “No more excuses.”

The three new board members, who will take office June 1, are Carol Carmody, former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; David Strickland, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and Robert Lauby, chief safety officer of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Carmody and Strickland will be voting members of the 16-member Metro board. Lauby will be an alternate, who votes only when one of the two federal voting members is absent.

The fourth current federal director, Anthony Costa, an alternate member, remains on the board. He is a senior adviser at the General Services Administration.

Carmody and Strickland will replace Mortimer Downey, who recently completed a term as board chairman, and Harriet Tregoning, director of the Office of Economic Resilience at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Lauby will replace Anthony Giancola, former executive director of the National Association of County Engineers.

Foxx, Charlotte’s former mayor, praised the outgoing directors for their “excellent service,” but there was no mistaking his desire to force change on the board so Metro would deal more aggressively with safety.

Despite decades of warnings from the federal government and others, Metro has failed to instill a safety-first mindset in its workforce and allowed its equipment to deteriorate so much that it sometimes endangers riders.

“Building a safety culture is not easy and requires relentless focus at every level,” Foxx said. “These three new Federal members will build on our promise to bring a laser-like focus on making the transit system of our nation’s capital as safe as possible.”

Downey, a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation, said he did not view his replacement as a rebuke of his performance in six years on the Metro board.

He said he talked with Foxx about it and the secretary “says it is not in his view that this is taking any objection to anything I’ve done.”

Instead, Downey said, “They’re doing what they think is necessary, and they’re looking for results.”

Downey was chairman of the board last year during an especially difficult period marked by clashes between new members critical of the agency, and longer-serving ones. A battle over what type of general manager to pick effectively paralyzed the agency for more than a year.

Foxx’s move comes at a time of increased scrutiny of Metro’s governing structure, which has long been blamed as a contributor to the agency’s difficulties.

Control of the Metro board is evenly divided among the federal government and three jurisdictions served by Metro — the District, Virginia and Maryland. The jurisdictions often disagree, as they did last year in a bitter clash that delayed for months the picking of a new general manager.

One criticism, made repeatedly by government and private studies, is that there are no guidelines to guarantee that Metro board members have experience that’s relevant to running transit systems. Over the years, some have obtained their positions largely through political patronage.

That isn’t the case with the three directors being replaced, however. Downey is a former senior executive of the New York subway, Tregoning is an expert in transit-oriented development, and Giancola is a professional engineer.

But Foxx was clearly trying to make a point by using all three of his picks to name executives with backgrounds in safety.

Carmody served on the NTSB for five years, and was acting chairman during the initial investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to the DOT.

The NTSB has warned Metro repeatedly for more than 40 years that it relied too much on automation, and lacked adequate systems and procedures to ensure that its workers and managers gave a sufficiently high priority to safety.

Strickland, as head of the highway safety administration, oversaw efforts to set vehicle safety standards and investigate possible safety defects, DOT said.

Lauby, at the railroad administration, has 35 years of railroad and rail transit experience involving safety, security and accident investigations, the DOT statement said.

Meanwhile, after several days of Red Line disruptions between the Van Ness-UDC and Medical Center stations -- including an emergency evacuation of train passengers Saturday night because of an electrical problem that sent smoke into a tunnel -- Metro on Thursday announced a four-day service slowdown in the area so that work crews can carry out a “maintenance surge.”

Thursday and Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and from 8 p.m. to midnight, and all day and night over the weekend, Red Line trains traveling in opposite directions will share one track between Van Ness and Medical Center, General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said. Because of the single-tracking, wait times between trains will be extended by at least 20 minutes, he said.

He said work crews will inspect the tracks and the electrified third rails in addition to power cables, cable-connection assemblies and third-rail “insulators,” which are small stanchions that keep the electrified rails separated from the ground. Faulty equipment will be cleaned, fixed or replaced during the “surge,” he said.

That section of the subway is especially deep and has long been plagued by moisture seeping in from the ground, which damages equipment. Over the years, Wiedefeld said, “we’ve patched the leaks, but, as you know, it’s a losing battle out there. It’s like a leaking basement. Until you get in and redo it, you can’t control it.”

Metro is considering a costly, long-term plan to reconstruct the lining of the tunnels in that area, Wiedefeld said.

He also said he is “very close” to unveiling a months-long, comprehensive maintenance plan for the entire rail system, to catch up on infrastructure maintenance that has been deferred by the transit agency for years. That lack of attention to maintenance has led to chronic, sometimes dangerous subway malfunctions and breakdowns, especially in recent months. He has said that the plan will involve major disruptions for subway commuters.

Most of this week’s Red Line trouble resulted from track-related problems that were caused or aggravated by moisture, Wiedefeld said. However, in Saturday night’s incident, a piece of metal dislodged from a train car and came in contact with the electrified third rail, causing “a loud noise, flash and smoke,” Metro said. The incident occurred just beyond the Tenleytown-AU station, before the train reached Friendship Heights. After train idled in the tunnel for about 10 minutes, with smoke wafting into some of the cars, it backed up to Tenleytown, where riders were evacuated.

Wiedefeld said Thursday that the incident remained under investigation and that he could share no new information about the “foreign object” that came loose from the train.