WASHINGTON — After nearly a year of emergency safety shutdowns and slowdowns and facing a budget proposal that includes fare hikes, service cuts and layoffs, the head of Metro’s largest union charges that Metro is still not moving in the right direction.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 President Jackie Jeter told reporters she’d give Paul Wiedefeld a C grade on his first year at Metro, largely because of his budget proposal that she has said could contribute to a “death spiral” for Metro. Wiedefeld took over Nov. 30, 2015 after a protracted selection process.
“Did she mark that on a curve?” Wiedefeld joked, when asked about it later Thursday.
“I don’t grade myself, you know I’ve got so much to do I’m not focusing on that,” he said. “We are working very hard to do the best that we can for the customers, for the agency and for this region,” he said.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans, who also is coming up on a year in that role, said he has seen progress.
“I think we’re doing well compared to where we were last year, so that’s my only benchmark,” Evans said. “Last year it was a rather — I hate to use the word — chaotic situation, but it seemed to be.”
He cited late audits and failed track work.
“The finances seemed very unsettled and the operations were not good at all,” Evans said. “We had no plan in place to deal with the maintenance situation that was deteriorating by the hour it seemed. That has all been changed.”
While Jeter acknowledged that Wiedefeld had inherited many problems at Metro “that happened long before him,” she said she does not believe the system is heading in the right direction.
“There are some very significant requests that we’ve made, the public has made, that haven’t been met,” she said. “If you’re going to say that the safety of the system has to be done, if you’re going to say that we need to build a safety culture, there is a way to do that. And that requires training — it requires intensive training — and that hasn’t taken place,” she said.
Metro has increased training efforts in recent months to address serious issues identified by internal or federal investigations, including a lack of knowledge of basic safety rules.
“He did inherit a system, just like when I take over the union, I take over the union and I’m supposed to make it better,” Jeter said. “And so he took over this system and he’s supposed to make it better. And right now I don’t think he’s doing that,” Jeter said.
She added: “Whether or not the jurisdictions [are] giving him the support that he should have in order to have a budget that’s going to allow him to do those things, that is the second part of the question.”
Jeter has led the union for more than 10 years, and spoke at a Metro Board meeting Thursday that was packed with union members and supporters. Her union is in the midst of contract negotiations, and has become much more vocal in recent weeks than at any time in recent memory.
“Contract negotiations are still ongoing,” Jeter said.
She suggested the unions had decided to become more vocal now because Metro is “not performing in our best interests.”
Wiedefeld said his toughest decisions over the past year have been to cut jobs at the agency. Many of the positions he has cut so far have been vacant, but some have required layoffs.
“I know that impacts, obviously, individuals’ lives and their livelihood and their families,” Wiedefeld said.
His budget proposal would lead to further cuts, since fewer workers would be needed if the Metro Board approves trains running less frequently at all times of day, eliminating some bus routes and ending late-night train service.
Many of the proposals have sparked heated debate on the Metro Board. Ridership has continued to fall sharply, a trend only exacerbated by riders turning away from the system during 24/7 work zones.
“We’ve been dealing with some difficult issues, so it’s clearly understandable that we’d have some debate about those issues, and to me that reflects that we’re actually getting at some of the core issues we need to get to,” Wiedefeld said.
“I continue to do what is best for this agency, that is what I was brought in to do, and I will continue to do that,” he said.