WASHINGTON — (WMAL) It was one year ago today that Paul Wiedefeld took over possibly the least-coveted job in the transportation world in starting to chart a path forward for the floundering Metro system. Many D.C.-area leaders and transportation experts agree Wiedefeld has given the system some hope, but there is still much to be done both in the short and long term, and many sharp disagreements about the direction still to be ironed out.
“He has been willing to make the tough decisions,” Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly told WMAL. “Which many of his predecessors, frankly, did not do.”
Chief among those tough decisions was the unprecedented move to close the system for an entire day on March 16. The region was given little more than a few hours notice that the system would be shuttered for 24 hours that Wednesday to do an emergency inspection of jumper cables.
“That showed his ability to make tough decisions and stand by them,” Coalition for Smarter Growth Executive Director Stewart Schwartz told WMAL. “It really established his role as a leader.”
Those same sentiments were expressed when Wiedefeld put together the 10-month track rehabilitation plan known as Safe Track, designed to compress three years’ worth of work into a much shorter time span. It was also seen in some in-the-weeds issues like workforce development. Wiedefeld announced the firing of 20 managers in May, and layoffs to the tune of 500 positions in July in an attempt to turn around the oft-criticized culture of the system.
Some say Wiedefeld’s effort to turn around operations and safety is inspiring other area leaders to finally start tackling the long-term issues that are out of Wiedefeld’s hands, like overhauling how Metro gets its money, and increasing its subsidies to further the system’s improvement.
“We appreciate Paul’s sense of urgency and focus on what needs to be done,” Greater Washington Board of Trade President Jim Dinegar said. “How we’re going to pay for it, how it’s going to be governed and all the rest is a work in progress, but I believe there is a growing sense of urgency.”
That urgency is appreciated by Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who again warned his colleagues of the dire straits ahead.
“We are faced with these staggering costs here,” Evans said during a D.C. Council breakfast Tuesday. “We are looking at $160 million in the next two years in operating costs, and $492 million in capital costs, increases that we have to put into Metro, or not. And the ‘or not’ is, the system’s just going to stop running.”
Evans proceeded to rail against jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia that he says have been dragging their feet on giving Metro what it needs.
“Loudoun County is the richest county in America. Fairfax County is the second-richest county in America. Arlington County is the sixth-richest county in America, and Montgomery County is the eighth-richest county in America,” Evans said. “These are the jurisdictions who can’t afford to pay for Metro.”
Evans’ comments do little to help a system where cross-jurisdictional cooperation is key, Connolly said.
“You can’t be Chairman of Metro and trash your compact partners,” Connolly said. “I have a Republican General Assembly in Richmond I have to sell (an increase in funding) to. And Jack Evans, every time he opens his mouth, makes that job harder.”
Evans made waves two weeks ago when he questioned Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s motivations in refusing to give Metro extra money, insinuating the Republican cares little for constituents in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties since it is a heavily Democratic area. Hogan’s office dismissed those claims, and a spokeswoman questioned Evans’ fitness for the job.
“The system needs strong, balanced, and rational leadership,” the spokeswoman said, “and if this chairman can’t provide it, then it’s time to find someone who can.”