Metro Board Chair Scrutinized After Latest Safety Lapse

The chairman of Metro's Board of Directors is coming under intense scrutiny following the latest serious safety lapse at the transit agency.

Privately, many behind the scenes are offering a blunt assessment, saying it is time for Mort Downey -- the chair of the Metro Board since January -- to step aside.

"He just doesn't seem to have a handle on this," said a high ranking Metro source Friday. "He's very slow to react to everything and he is too laid back."

Others within the transit agency say Downey's position has been in question for some time, and this may be the "straw" that ends his chairmanship.

These admissions come days after Metro revealed that a section of track near the Smithsonian station was out of alignment for almost a month until a derailment happened last week. Metro had discovered the problem in early July, but the track sat out of position as trains carrying passengers rolled over it.

Finally, a train that was not carrying passengers and was about to start service the morning of Aug. 6, rolled over the track and derailed.

The incident has thrown Metro and its staff into chaos.

Many are pointing fingers.

Downey is coming under fire because, as one source puts it, "a strong board chair could affect change."

"Mort is way beyond where he needs to be," said a Metro insider.

Without a permanent general manager at Metro, Downey has become one of the de facto figure heads at the transit agency.

When reached via email for a comment Friday, Downey said these revelations are "not surprising."

Downey, who is on vacation and out of the country, admitted that the board does need to be more demanding.

"Perhaps (we) should have independent engineers working for us, as is the case for the NYC MTA Board," he wrote.

When asked if he thinks his position with the board could be in jeopardy, he responded, "That's up to the appointing officials."

Downey was appointed to the Metro Board by the General Services Administration as a federal representative. His terms as a board member is scheduled to run through 2018.

But some point out Downey could be asked to step aside as board chairman in January after a year of service in that position.

The current rule at Metro is that the board chair serves a year and can be asked to stay on for a second year.

That may not happen in this case.

"If he were running a private company he would be fired," said a Metro source.

Yet another person familiar with Metro's internal affairs said Downey's name was mentioned negatively at a recent high-level regional meeting between U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Governors Larry Hogan and Terry McAuliffe.

While there is intense criticism of Downey, Metro's safety department also is not escaping the spotlight.

Metro is investigating why the section of track that was out of alignment near Smithsonian was not immediately shut down and repaired.

Metro said there was a breakdown in the chain of command as to why the misaligned track was left to linger.

A final answer as to where the communication broke down is expected in the next 10 days.

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