Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: Improved Planning of Future Rehabilitation Projects Could Prevent Limitations Identified with SafeTrack

GAO-17-348 Published: Mar 14, 2017. Publicly Released: Mar 14, 2017.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) planning of SafeTrack did not fully align with leading project management practices. While WMATA generally followed leading practices to coordinate with stakeholders, it did not comprehensively collect and use data on the condition of its assets, analyze project alternatives, and develop a project management plan before starting work. WMATA did not follow these practices because it believed it needed to start work immediately to address critical safety issues.

  • Although WMATA inspected its track assets when planning SafeTrack, those inspections were not comprehensive and did not collect detailed data on the condition of all track infrastructure, such as all “interlockings,” where trains cross from one track to another. As a result, WMATA's decision makers may not have used sufficient information to develop project objectives and to properly prioritize SafeTrack work.
  • Though WMATA developed three alternatives for SafeTrack, it did not determine the costs and impacts of each alternative, or assess them to determine which approach may have resulted in greater efficiencies, lower costs, or less disruption for riders and local jurisdictions.
  • Before WMATA began SafeTrack, it lacked a comprehensive project management plan, which is a key tool to ensure a project is completed on-time, within-budget, and according to quality standards.

WMATA does not have a policy that requires, and includes relevant procedures for how to carry out, these planning activities for large-scale rehabilitation projects. Without such a policy and procedures, WMATA lacks a framework to plan future rehabilitation projects so that they achieve their objectives.

WMATA's implementation of SafeTrack generally aligned with leading project management practices. Specifically, WMATA officials collected information on the work performed and the condition of assets repaired during SafeTrack. WMATA officials also collect lessons learned during and after each surge, and use those lessons during subsequent maintenance and planning efforts. Additionally, WMATA developed a new organization-wide quality control and assurance framework and is implementing it for the first time through SafeTrack.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has used safety inspections and other tools to oversee SafeTrack and direct WMATA to undertake safety-critical work. FTA has relied on two different authorities to oversee SafeTrack: (1) FTA's public transportation safety oversight authority, and (2) its project management oversight authority. Prior to the start of SafeTrack and during the project, FTA conducted safety inspections and directed WMATA to make repairs to reduce the risk of smoke and fires on the rail system. After SafeTrack work began and estimated project costs exceeded $100 million, FTA determined SafeTrack to be a major capital project, triggering the statutory requirement that WMATA prepare a project management plan. WMATA did not submit its project management plan until 4 months into SafeTrack. FTA found the plan lacked sufficient detail, and WMATA told GAO it is working to improve the plan.

Why GAO Did This Study

Recent inquiries into WMATA's Metrorail system have revealed a range of serious safety issues. In response to some of these issues, as well as a backlog of track maintenance, WMATA announced in May 2016 that it was undertaking SafeTrack, a large-scale rehabilitation project. The SafeTrack project is overseen by FTA.

GAO was asked to review a range of safety and oversight issues regarding WMATA. This report examines the extent to which WMATA's (1) planning and (2) implementation of SafeTrack was consistent with leading project management practices as well as (3) the steps taken by FTA to oversee SafeTrack.

GAO reviewed documentation on WMATA's planning and project implementation, and FTA's oversight of SafeTrack. GAO also interviewed officials from WMATA, FTA, and local jurisdictions, and compared WMATA's planning and implementation of SafeTrack to leading project management practices developed by professional organizations.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that WMATA develop a policy that requires and includes procedures for it to, prior to starting future large-scale rehabilitation projects: (1) use asset data to develop project objectives; (2) analyze alternatives; and (3) develop a project management plan for those projects that may not be designated as major capital projects. WMATA agreed with GAO's findings and said that it is working to address the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority To ensure future large-scale rehabilitation projects are in line with leading project management practices, WMATA should develop a policy that requires and includes relevant procedures specifying that, prior to starting large-scale projects, WMATA should use detailed data on the conditions of assets to develop project objectives and scope.
Closed – Implemented
In May 2016, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced it was undertaking SafeTrack, a large-scale rehabilitation project for its rail infrastructure. In 2017, GAO reported that WMATA's planning of SafeTrack did not fully align with leading project management practices, including some that are focused on projects for rehabilitating transit assets. Specifically, although WMATA inspected its track assets when planning SafeTrack, those inspections were not comprehensive and did not collect detailed data on the condition of all track infrastructure. Leading management practices for transit rehabilitation projects state that transit agencies should collect and use data on assets when planning projects. More specifically, agencies should use data to assess the conditions of assets, and these assessments should then form the basis of prioritizing rehabilitation work. Although WMATA collected data on specific items like rail crossties, its inspections for the planning of SafeTrack did not cover all infrastructure such as electrical power systems or "interlockings," where trains cross from one track to another. GAO found that WMATA's planning of SafeTrack relied on limited data on the condition of Metrorail assets, in part because the agency lacks internal requirements governing the collection and use of asset information in planning projects. As a result, GAO recommended that WMATA establish a policy and procedures requiring that WMATA use detailed data on the conditions of assets to develop project objectives and scope prior to starting large-scale projects. In 2021, GAO confirmed that WMATA has taken several actions that collectively address the intent of GAO's recommendation and position WMATA to make better use of asset condition data in making capital investments, including for large-scale rehabilitation projects. First, to improve the availability of asset data, WMATA hired consultants in 2019 to create a business process for WMATA to conduct and implement comprehensive asset inventory and condition assessments. In September 2020, WMATA subsequently issued a "Transit Asset Conditions Assessment Strategy Report," which establishes the steps for WMATA to take to enhance its asset condition assessment procedures, information management systems, and reporting structures. Second, WMATA has taken steps to revise its overall capital planning process which includes a structured approach to identifying, evaluating, and approving capital investments that places additional emphasis on asset condition data. Specifically, WMATA established guidance and presentations for WMATA project managers on WMATA's revised capital planning process that emphasized the use of available condition data to target critical assets and make measurable progress towards achieving a state of good repair. Third, WMATA officials described how this process has worked in practice in the authorities' recent capital planning efforts, in which WMATA's Office of Capital Program Management gathered asset condition data from engineering leads across the authority to evaluate proposed investments and verify that assets in poor condition were flagged for review and considered for inclusion in the capital program. WMATA officials recognized that additional work is needed to improve the availability of asset condition data across the authority. However, these steps taken together provide WMATA with policies and procedures to help inform WMATA decision-makers on the condition of assets so that they can better focus largescale rehabilitation and other capital projects on those assets in greatest need of repair.
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority To ensure future large-scale rehabilitation projects are in line with leading project management practices, WMATA should develop a policy that requires and includes relevant procedures specifying that, prior to starting large-scale projects, WMATA should evaluate and compare alternative ways of accomplishing the project objectives, including estimates for the alternatives' costs and impacts.
Closed – Implemented
In May 2016, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced it was undertaking SafeTrack, a large-scale rehabilitation project for its rail infrastructure. In 2017, GAO reported that WMATA's planning of SafeTrack did not fully align with leading project management practices, including some that are focused on projects for rehabilitating transit assets. Specifically, though WMATA developed three alternatives for SafeTrack, it did not determine the costs and impacts of each alternative, or assess them to determine which approach may have resulted in greater efficiencies. WMATA did not follow this practice because it believed it needed to start work immediately to address critical safety issues. However, by not following these leading practices, WMATA lacked assurance that the accelerated approach taken with SafeTrack was the most effective way to identify and address safety issues. As a result, GAO recommended that WMATA develop a policy that requires and includes relevant procedures specifying that, prior to starting large-scale projects, WMATA should evaluate and compare alternative ways of accomplishing the project objectives. In 2020, WMATA implemented a new process to evaluate major projects. More specifically, WMATA's new Capital Planning process includes a standardized process for assessing and presenting alternative strategies for accomplishing project goals. The process requires WMATA managers to make a business case that compares different alternatives to achieve project objectives. Developing and implementing this new process for considering alternatives will help WMATA compare costs and benefits of competing project strategies in deciding how to effectively address future infrastructure challenges.
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority To ensure future large-scale rehabilitation projects are in line with leading project management practices, WMATA should develop a policy that requires and includes relevant procedures specifying that, prior to starting large-scale projects, WMATA should develop a comprehensive project management plan for the selected alternative--to include key elements such as detailed plans for managing the project's scope, schedule, and cost--for those projects that may not be designated major capital projects.
Closed – Implemented
In May 2016, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced it was undertaking SafeTrack, a large-scale rehabilitation project for its rail infrastructure. In 2017, GAO reported that WMATA's planning of SafeTrack did not fully align with leading project management practices, including some that are focused on projects for rehabilitating transit assets. Specifically, although WMATA developed some plans to coordinate its maintenance tasks for the SafeTrack project, it did not develop a comprehensive project management plan before starting the project to clarify how the project would be executed, monitored, and controlled. Leading practices call for a project management plan that includes the critical information for managing a project's scope, schedule, and cost, according to established baselines and in consideration of project risks, quality standards, and other items. In addition, a project management plan is required for public-transportation-related major capital projects receiving federal financial assistance. According to WMATA officials, WMATA did not develop a comprehensive project management plan before beginning SafeTrack because they believed a project management plan was not appropriate for the project and that they could not postpone this track work to develop this plan. In addition, GAO found that WMATA lacked a policy and procedures requiring the development of a project management plan for large-scale rehabilitation projects like SafeTrack-regardless of whether the work is to be completed in response to an emergency situation or within WMATA's normal state of good repair efforts. Specifically, WMATA told GAO that it has a manual on project implementation that is focused on the implementation and close-out phases of a project, but does not yet cover the planning phase, when a project management plan would be developed. Without such a policy and procedures, WMATA lacked a key tool to ensure its project was completed on-time, on-budget, and according to quality standards. As a result, GAO recommended that WMATA establish a policy requiring that WMATA develop a comprehensive project management plan prior to starting large-scale projects that includes key elements such as detailed plans for managing the project's scope, schedule, and cost. In August of 2020, WMATA issued a revised Project Implementation Manual that establishes the procedures that WMATA project managers are to follow in implementing major capital projects and other infrastructure updates and repairs. For example, WMATA's revised manual requires its project managers to identify and manage project cost and schedule risks as part of the project development stage and to meet defined quality standards throughout the project. While WMATA did not develop the recommended policy, its revised manual calls for WMATA to prepare and maintain a project management plan when developing new projects, which meets the intent of our recommendation. As a result, WMATA is better positioned with revised procedures to help ensure that future largescale projects similar to SafeTrack are designed in consideration of project risks and completed on-time, on-budget, and according to quality standards.

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