Why Mayor Bowser Is Reluctant to Criticize WMATA

A couple of weeks ago, there was a horrible fire in the D.C. Metro, causing one death and dozens of hospitalizations. It’s unclear if this was a result of poor maintenance and safety inspection or just bad luck, but the emergency response was awful.

What noticeable is that almost of all of the local officials have made the appropriate pissed-off noises and called for investigations (that many of these same politicians are responsible for underfunding the Metro…well, no reason to be rude): congressmen and senators from Maryland and Virginia (as well as our non-voting D.C. Congressman) along with state governors.

The one glaring exception is D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (boldface mine):

As questions have mounted and the volume of the blame game has grown louder over last week’s fatal smoke incident on Metro, one public figure has struck a notably cautious, nonconfrontational profile: D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser….

Bowser (D) has said that drawing conclusions would be “premature,” that commenting with a federal investigation underway is “irresponsible.” She considers it a duty not to rush to judgment — even as Metro riders are clamoring for answers, as well as some assurance that the region’s subway system is safe.

The crisis has provided an early test of Bowser’s leadership style and, by some accounts, it has defined the outset of her term. Nearly every day since the incident on Jan. 12 — Bowser’s 11th day in office — has brought a new example of her measured approach….

Bowser appeared to defend Metro when, the day after the incident, she said that “the safety culture has dramatically improved” — a remark that prompted critics to say that she was speaking as a former Metro board member and not as the District’s mayor.

She declined to blame Metro even when her administration concluded that after Metro’s initial call for help, 20 minutes elapsed before Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials told firefighters that there was a train carrying passengers stopped in the smoke-filled tunnel.

And Bowser declined to comment when the National Transportation Safety Board said it took 35 minutes for Metro to cut power to the tunnel’s dangerous third rail, perhaps delaying firefighters’ rescue of passengers.

This isn’t an issue of style. I write this as someone who voted for her: one of her biggest liabilities is that she was a former Metro board member. Metro is very poorly run and administered*. It’s pretty clear that many of the members, Bowser included, don’t use it on a regular basis–and it shows. It was a reflection on her abilities, though as part of a large board, there’s enough blame to go around.

It’s not a management style, it’s one part covering her ass and one part placing institutional loyalty above the needs of her constituents.

Mayor Bowser really hasn’t done well with crises so far.

*Compared to D.C., Boston’s MBTA does far better with much older stock and being saddled by the state with crippling debts. D.C. Metro does build themselves some damn fine offices though.

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