Foxx, shown here in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, says "getting the safety culture right at every level" is important for Metro.
Metro's 16-member board of directors may get another shakeup soon.
A week after the politically divided board elected a new chairman in D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he expects by the end of the month to announce whether and when he will begin replacing the board's four federal appointees.
"Whether everybody stays or there will be incremental changes, or whether there will be more significant changes, I would like to be in a position by the end of the month to be able to answer that question," Foxx said in remarks at his office on Tuesday.
Last year Congress shifted the appointment power to the U.S. DOT from the General Services Administration in a move designed to ensure future appointees would bring transportation expertise to Metro governance and act as watchdogs over Metro's spending of federal grant dollars, which cover about 40 percent of the costs of capital projects. Of the four current federal representatives, only one — former board chair Mort Downey — has extensive experience in public transit.
In some of his strongest public comments to date about the Washington region's troubled transit system, Foxx said "collective failure" has left Metro in a bad place.
"The most important thing to me with respect to WMATA is getting the safety culture right at every level. I am concerned that there's been an effort to this point to balance service expansion with safety needs, and I am no longer interested in that balance," Foxx said. "I am interested in a very clear focus, laser-like, on safety. Whether that is at the board level, at the staff level there, everybody has to be willing to stay focused on this because this is the nation's transit system and it can't be broken."
The nation's top transportation official pointed to the recent admission by legislators in Metro's three regional jurisdictions — Maryland, Virginia and D.C. — that they will fail to form a new, independent safety oversight group this year, defying federal officials who pushed for the creation of the Metro Safety Commission in 2016.
"I think that is a horrible mistake on their part because our own oversight of WMATA is not meant to be a permanent occupation," Foxx said.
In an unprecedented step last year, Foxx ordered the Federal Transit Administration to temporarily expand its oversight role — previously confined to WMATA finances — to include safety issues. The order followed an exhaustive report that uncovered scores of safety problems within Metro's rail and bus operations affecting both riders and employees.
"There has been collective failure. While I can't erase — and no one, for that matter, can erase — what has happened to this point, it is really time for the agency to take a very strong step forward on the safety issues," Foxx said.
In November, acting FTA administrator Therese McMillan urged officials in the three jurisdictions to approve identical legislation to stand up the new safety commission, to no avail. Foxx hinted that he might take action to move the process forward, but declined to elaborate.
"I will use every tool at my disposal to ensure they know they've got less time than they seem to believe they have to get this done," he said. "Babysitting safety oversight [of Metro] is not one of our prized things to be doing."