MTA administrator asks for peer review of agency's handling of Baltimore Metro track issues

Maryland transportation officials, facing criticism of the state’s handling of track problems that have shut down Baltimore’s Metro for repairs, requested an outside review on Thursday of the Maryland Transit Administration’s handling of maintenance issues on the subway.

The review request comes as the Federal Transit Administration is conducting its own review of the problems with Metro SubwayLink, said Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

MTA Administrator Kevin B. Quinn Jr. said in a letter that MTA officials have met with FTA representatives to brief them on the subway shutdown. He said a joint MTA-FTA team has conducted a safety oversight “track walk” of the Metro line.

The FTA could not be reached for comment late Thursday.

In his letter to the American Public Transit Association, Quinn asked that group to name a panel of experts to perform a “peer review” of the MTA’s maintenance practices for the Metro subway compared with the best practices in the industry.

Quinn asked that the review team include professionals from other metropolitan transit agencies with experience in heavy rail operations such as Metro. The association represents public mass transit organizations across the country.

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn told The Baltimore Sun earlier this week that he would ask the association to examine the circumstances that led the MTA to halt Metro service this month.

The MTA shut down the aboveground part of its subway line from Mondawmin Mall to Owings Mills on Feb. 9 after inspections showed a need for emergency track work. Subsequent inspections showed the track defects were more extensive, and two days later the agency said the entire line from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital would shut down for repairs until March 11.

Officials said at the time that they had to move up previous plans to shut the line down during the summer because track problems had worsened more quickly than expected.

About a week later, the MTA released reports showing that it actually knew the tracks had deteriorated to the point where they violated the agency’s own safety standards as early as November 2016.

Rahn called those standards unnecessarily stringent and said continued use of the tracks did not pose a danger at that time.

The MTA’s request for an outside review brought praise from Del. Brooke E. Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat who has been critical of the management of the subway and the candor of top transportation officials. She said she supports any effort to bring transparency to the operations of the MTA and its parent, the state transportation department.

“Having outside experts come in is a sound idea on its face,” said Lierman, who sits on the House subcommittee that oversees the transportation budget.

David McClure, who leads the union representing Metro and other MTA operators, said he pointed out the track problems to top transportation department officials in the Hogan administration starting in early 2016. He said he showed them pictures of the cracked and deteriorated tracks but saw little action in response.

McClure, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, said there were problems with the Metro under the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley but not as severe as now.

“Since this administration has taken over, it’s gotten worse,” he said.

Henson denied Thursday that any passengers were put at risk.

“Since 2016, the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration has conducted 821 inspections on Metro SubwayLink ensuring the safety of our riders,” she said. “The decision to temporarily suspend operation was the right decision. There is no higher priority than safety.”

In his letter to the transit association, Quinn asked the group to include “a review and recommendations of national benchmarks on track standards” as well as an assessment of the MTA’s standard operating procedures and manual for Metro inspectors. He also is seeking a comprehensive review of the procedures and methods used by Metro inspectors.

While Lierman said it was great that MTA has invited outside reviews, she added that it wasn’t enough. The lawmaker called on the MTA to conduct a complete review of all its capital assets — which include the Baltimore bus system, the MARC train fleet and the city’s light rail line along with Metro.

“We need to know for future planning what the state of repair of all MTA-owned assets is,” Lierman said.

Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, echoed Lierman’s call for an audit of MTA assets. He also called for disclosure of the findings of any reviews.

“We do need to have some accountability and transparency as MDOT and MTA look into that,” he said. “The public needs to know whether we’re being good stewards of this infrastructure.”

O’Malley said he’s concerned that MTA spending increases of 2 to 2 ½ percent aren’t keeping up with annual growth in the cost of providing transit services, now more than 6 percent.

“We’ve got to fund the MTA to achieve a state of good repair,” he said.

Asked to comment on the agency’s handling of the Metro’s problems, Liam Davis, who chairs the MTA’s Citizens Advisory Council, said the council’s bylaws bar him from speaking to the media.

However Ed Cohen, a council member and longtime transit activist, praised the decision to seek a review.

“It is useful, but the real problem at MTA is that the MTA’s budget is inadequate,” he said.

He said the agency’s problems were not a result of mismanagement but a legacy of many years of underfunding by the department and the governor’s office — going back long before Hogan took office.

Cohen said that to function efficiently the MTA needs a 35 percent increase in its operating budget and enough of a bump in capital spending to make up for what he called “the lost years” of under-investment.

While the subway has been out of commission, riders have been using a “bus bridge” provided by the MTA as a substitute.

Cohen said that he tried out the bus bridge Friday, starting at Hopkins Hospital and riding to Owings Mills. He said the trip took an hour and 58 minutes, compared with a normal subway trip of 29 minutes.

“You can’t use buses instead of subways to solve the transit problems of Baltimore,” he said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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