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What matters about Metro?

I'm not sure at what point Maryland's decision to withhold money from Metro's capital budget became a decision about safety and accountability.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who is up for reelection this year, made a big deal about Metro's safety and accountability during the "Ask the Governor" show Monday on WTOP. That's swell. The governor of Maryland does have a lot to say about the service Metro provides, but has not taken many opportunities to do so in the past three years.

But ever since Maryland caved on the capital budget issue last week, Maryland and Metro officials have sought to portray this as an issue of Maryland needing to be satisfied that Metro is doing the right thing on safety and accountability, and Metro agreeing to provide satisfaction.

That's a bit of a stretch. Metro clearly is not doing the right thing on safety and accountability. The most recent demonstration came last week, just as Maryland was agreeing to hand over the money.

A Red Line operator hit the emergency brake outside Wheaton Station because the operator thought the train was getting too close to another one already at the platform. Nobody got hurt. But this is hardly an example of the system working the way it should. If the system works the way it should, the emergency brake is the operator's last resort to avoid a crash.

This isn't your everyday occurrence. After the incident Wednesday, Metro imposed an "absolute block" on that section of track as a safety precaution, meaning only one train at a time can be in the zone, and the transit authority slowed trains passing through the zone to 15 mph. That's a pretty close match to the steps Metro took a little farther south on the Red Line after the fatal crash June 22.

But Metro handled communications about the incident in the same old way. The safety officials who needed to know about it right away didn't know about it. So much for safety, accountability and transparency.

You might want to know how, in this environment, Maryland could agree to hand over the two installments of $28 million that it had planned to withhold. On Monday, the governor thundered: "The biggest issue that we're wrestling right now ... is that the Washington Metro system has the worst record of safety of any Metro system in the county."

"We need not only better service delivery but better management when it comes to the safety and security issues," he continued. The governor added that "there has been very little openness, very little transparency."

Then the governor went on to talk about the money: "They've had a huge amount of capital dollars that were not being deployed and spent on projects," he said. "We asked that we be given some assurance that the dollars they are already sitting on ... are actually going to move before we sign off on the next $28 million."

Most riders wouldn't argue with those thoughts. It's just that they might have trouble connecting them.

In fact, Maryland officials don't have much practice connecting the money and the safety-accountability-transparency thing. Until very recently, the money was about the money.

In the Jan. 28 letter [Full letter at Greater Greater Washington] from Maryland to Metro announcing the state's withholding plan, Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley wrote:

"Maryland's capital contributions to WMATA for the Metro Matters Program are funded through Maryland's Consolidated Transportation Program (CTP). Unfortunately, due to the economic recession, revenues supporting Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund have declined by 13 percent since 2007 and MDOT has been forced to cancel, defer, or reduce funding for over 250 projects and programs totaling $2.1 billion. Spending on operating programs was also reduced by $300 million over the six-year period.

"While funding for the Metro Matters Program has not been reduced, FY 2010 and FY 2011 funding for the program has been deferred until later in the six-year plan. We will continue to work with you to develop a revised forecast for jurisdictions' capital contributions that is consistent with WMATA's updated capital program and corresponding cash flow needs."

I'm not hearing the thunder. And I'm not seeing any reference to safety, accountability or transparency. It's about the money.

"We're determined to improve the performance of the Washington Metro system," O'Malley said on the radio Monday. And he also said, "We have never entertained the notion that somehow if you eliminate funding that's going to make them better."

I hope the first statement proves true. I'm pretty sure the second one already is true.

By Robert Thomson  |  May 10, 2010; 4:20 PM ET
Categories:  Metro , Transportation Politics  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Red Line  
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I think the reason you're seeing contradictory messages is that the current MD government governed the state into bankruptcy.

On the other hand, a Democrat governor is going to look like a dufus if he's seen as against public transportation. So he is rationalizing the fiscal decision as a safety decision.

I can just see the O'Malley campaign: come vote for me! I hate killed the environment and your commute by pulling the rug out from under Metro. Anyone want a slot machine?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | May 10, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

What afsljafweljkjlfe said.

Posted by: --sg | May 10, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

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