June 24, 2009

METRORAIL TRAGEDY HIGHLIGHTS FEDERAL RESPONSIBILITY

Mr. CARDIN: Madame President, I rise today to offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the tragic collision of two metro trains this past Monday evening. This accident, the most devastating by any measure in Metro history, has affected our entire region.

 

My prayers are with those who lost their lives and my deepest sympathies are with their families, friends and all those whose lives they touched. I also want to take a moment to praise the first responders who worked tirelessly through the night to rescue the injured and save lives. It is during tragedies like this that we fully appreciate the heroism and bravery of our first responders.

At this time, we do not know the cause of the crash, and it may take considerable time for the National Transportation Safety Board to complete their investigation and make a determination. And we certainly will do everything we can in this body to assist the National Transportation Safety Board in their investigation to make sure it is thorough and complete and we completely understand how this tragedy occurred.

 

However, this catastrophe has resurfaced a number of reasonable questions about the frailness of Metro's infrastructure. News reports found that the train car that caused the fatal accident was an older model that federal safety officials had recommended for replacement. It did not have a data recorder or modern improvements to stand up to a collision, and it may have been two months behind on its scheduled maintenance.

 

Metro officials are replacing these aging cars that date back to the 1970s. These costly replacements are being made, but the pace is too slow. Funding shortfalls have caused Metro to make repairs instead of replacing aging equipment or structures throughout the system.

 

Last year, I visited the Shady Grove Station and witnessed first-hand how they literally are using wood planks and iron rods to prop up station platforms. They have been forced to make such accommodations to keep the system running in the safest possible manner.

The Washington Metrorail system is the second busiest commuter rail system in America, carrying as many as 1 million passengers a day. It carries the equivalent of the combined subway ridership of BART in San Francisco, MARTA in Atlanta and SEPTA in Philadelphia -- each day. But more than three decades after the first trains started running, the system is showing severe signs of its age. 60 percent of the Metrorail system is more than 20 years old. The costs of operations, maintenance and rehabilitation are tremendous.

This is not only the responsibility of the local jurisdictions who are served by Metro - Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. - but this also is a federal responsibility. Federal facilities are located within footsteps of 35 of Metrorail's 86 stations. Nearly half of Metrorail's rush hour riders are federal employees. This is our Metro System. We have a responsibility. Approximately 10 percent of Metro's riders use the Metrorail stations at the Pentagon, Capitol South or Union Station, serving the military and the Congress.

 

In addition, Metro's ability to move people quickly and safely in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster is critical. The Metro system was invaluable on September 11, 2001, proving its importance to the Federal Government and to the nation during the terrorist attacks of that tragic day.

 

There is a clear federal responsibility to this system.

Metro is unique from any other major public transit systems across the country also because it has no dedicated source of funding to pay for operations and capital funding requirements.   But we are close to resolving that issue.

 

I was proud to work alongside Senator Barbara Mikulski and Senator Jim Webb and former Senator John Warner last year to pass the Federal Rail Safety Improvement Act , which was signed into law in October 2008. This law authorizes $1.5 billion over 10 years in federal funds for Metro's governing Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority, matched dollar-for-dollar by local jurisdictions, for capital improvements. The technical details of this arrangement are nearly complete and when done, Metro finally will have its dedicated funding sources.

 

I compliment the states of Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia for passing the necessary legislation.

Earlier this year, as a regional delegation, along with our new colleague Senator Mark Warner, we requested the Appropriations Committee provide the first $150 million. While this is a substantial down payment, it is not nearly enough to fulfill all of Metrorail's obligations. At the time of the bill's passage, Metro had a list of ready-to-go projects totaling about $530 million and $11 billion in capital funding needs over the next decade.

Yesterday, I joined with my colleagues from Maryland and Virginia in sending another letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee, reiterating our urgent request for a first-year installment of $150 million in funding for WMATA.

Earlier today, I was pleased to announce $34.3 million in additional funding for the purchase of new Metro cars. This was the last installment of a three-year, $104 million commitment. However, only a steady, major stream of funding will help WMATA make the investments needed to reassure the commuters, locals and tourists, families, and all Americans who ride Metro that the system is as safe and reliable as we can make it.

I find it unacceptable that the transit system in our Nation's Capital does not have enough resources to improve safety and upgrade its aging infrastructure. While we may not know the cause of Monday's tragic collision for some time, it shined a spotlight on the dire need for improvements and upgrades to Metrorail's infrastructure.

 

Again, on behalf of all my colleagues, I extend my deepest sympathies to all those who were affected by this horrific accident, in particular the families and loved ones of those who were killed. I hope that my colleagues will join together, working with the Virginia and Maryland Senators, to ensure that this body does everything it can to make sure that a similar tragedy is never repeated.