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Metro needs an audit

Baltimore’s Metro riders should be forgiven if they’re feeling a little testy these days. Not only did the subway system get shut down suddenly with less than 24 hours notice on Feb. 9, leaving many still scrambling to find a way to get to and from work, but the Hogan administration explanation of these events seems to be evolving.

First, there was the claim from the Maryland Transit Administration’s Kevin Quinn that inspectors had suddenly found a problem on the aboveground portion of the system that now required an earlier replacement of rail that than the one that had been planned for this summer. Then there was the observation by Gov. Larry Hogan that the previous administration had “drastically” underfunded Metro and neglected maintenance, a point that neither Mr. Quinn nor 10 years of public records support. More recently, The Sun’s Colin Campbell reported how documents show Metro rail wear has been a safety concern since at least November 2016 when an inspector observed that 17 of Metro’s turns had “deteriorated to the point where no train movement is allowed.”

So why weren’t emergency repairs made immediately instead of planned for the summer of 2018? The latest explanation from Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn is that the 2016 report was wrong, and the track was safe; the old standards were simply too stringent and outdated, he said. Therefore, his agency hadn’t been misleading about safety concerns at all, he said; the problem is in how safety was being measured. Apparently, it was just a coincidence that the wear became bad enough to justify the emergency shutdown a mere 15 months later.

Now, all these things may be true, but they require a certain suspension of disbelief particularly coming from an administration that simply hasn’t made Baltimore public transit a top spending priority. (This is the point at which we normally mention Mr. Hogan’s cancellation of the $2.9 billion Red Line project, but his aides claim we raise the issue too often so will keep it strictly parenthetical.) The more likely scenario is that MTA dropped the ball by either misjudging how bad the tracks were getting in 2016 or perhaps just put off dealing with it. Small wonder that some lawmakers like Baltimore’s Del. Brooke Lierman are questioning the agency’s credibility while at least one public figure, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Shea thinks Mr. Rahn should step down over the incident which, by the way, he doesn’t intend to do.

Here’s what is certain. The tracks were bound to wear out. The useful life of subway track is considered to be 35 years and Metro turns 36 this fall. The repairs are costing $1.5 million plus another $2.2 million in emergency funds for a “bus bridge” that is shuttling hundreds of riders daily on premium coaches. It would have been far better to have avoided that second, unnecessary expense with a more aggressive response to track replacement in the first place (much like homeowners are wise to replace their roofs before the 30-year shingles actually turn 30). How dangerous was Metro? Well, that’s the $3.7 million question.

Baltimore Metro riders deserve a more thorough examination of events than the conflicting claims of Hogan administration officials, especially considering what happened just down the street in Washington, D.C., where neglected maintenance has been a factor in a number of derailments and fatalities involving the Washington Metro — and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has been specifically criticized for not heeding the advice of safety inspectors and other experts.

Secretary Rahn recently decided that he wants the American Public Transportation Association to conduct a peer review of the Metro incident and expects the MTA to cooperate fully. We would ask only that he go further and request the Federal Transit Administration’s involvement as well and that both organizations look at what happened to Metro and whether the MTA is following best safety practices not only on the subway line but in all its operations. After all, when the Metro reopens next month, it would be nice if those who are part of the system’s roughly 40,000 daily boardings can have full confidence that the system is safe and that it will continue to be operated and maintained in that fashion. At this point, that’s an assurance a credible third party can best provide.

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