WHITE REMOVED FROM INVESTIGATION OF MTA BUS WHEELS
TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY ALSO SEEKS EXPLANATION OF HANDLING OF PROBLEM
The Baltimore Sun, Originally published June 1, 2002
By Marcia Myers, Sun Staff
An internal investigation into why wheels have fallen off 16 Maryland Transit Administration buses since August has been taken away from the agency's acting administrator, Virginia White, and turned over to the MTA's safety division, Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said yesterday.
The move comes amid criticism that White belatedly launched an investigation, after the 10th accident, and that internal squabbles and a conflict of interest may have compromised efforts to fix the problem. White also failed to disclose the scope of the problems to Porcari, who learned the number of accidents and injuries only last week.
Five drivers and 15 passengers have filed injury claims from the accidents, which in some cases sent 200-pound wheels rolling down streets and smacking into cars and buildings.
"In practical terms, it's the best way to get to the bottom of it within the MTA," Porcari said. "But it's also an important message that safety is the imperative."
He said he met personally with the agency's top administrators to inform them of the change. "I wanted them to hear it from my lips," he said.
The new leader of MTA's internal investigation is Deputy Administrator Eric Christensen, who oversees safety. He will work with an independent team, created last week by Porcari, to find the cause of the problems, propose solutions, and investigate how the agency responded as accidents reports mounted.
An article published Sunday in The Sun detailed how White had excluded safety division officials from her investigation team in favor of operations officials, including her husband, Frank White, head of the MTA's largest bus maintenance facility on Bush Street. White also blocked an independent inspection of buses set up by the safety department and challenged the authority of a safety officer who identified a potential maintenance problem in the Bush Street facility.
Ralph Moore, a member of the Citizen Planning and Housing Association's transportation committee, said the change announced by Porcari is encouraging.
"In the face of this situation, I think both Virginia and her husband need to be brought out of the picture altogether," he said. "Clearly these people can't investigate themselves."
Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairman of a House subcommittee on transportation, described Porcari's decisions as "concrete steps."
"What had been an unacceptable situation is now under control," Franchot said. "I'm personally satisfied that we're on top of it. We want safety put front and center." Virginia White declined to comment last night.
Porcari's investigators, meanwhile, focused this week on finding a cause of the loose wheels.
They are examining a maintenance decision at the four bus garages to significantly increase pressure in the air lines to inflate tires more rapidly. Those lines also feed the air wrenches used to tighten lug nuts, and the increased pressure could have put significantly more force on the lug nuts. The evidence so far suggests that the lug nuts were secured with too much pressure, causing the bolts underneath to fracture and break.
John Contestabile, a transportation engineer who is leading Porcari's investigation, said the problem might have been compounded by a lack of training among the mechanics and by the deterioration of a gasket between the double wheels, which could cause the loosening of the lug nuts.
"With a week's worth of work under our belt, it isn't like we can say 'Aha!'" he said. "We really haven't found the proverbial smoking gun."
Contestabile said there is no indication of product failure.
Porcari emphasized yesterday that his top priorities are finding a solution and putting it into practice. He has tapped experts from Transportation Resource Associates, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm, and from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
But another priority is identifying how the agency responded as the number of incidents grew.
Porcari said auditors have retrieved numerous e-mails to reconstruct the chain of information and the decisions made in recent months.
"Inasmuch as personally I would like to get to step three, we have to absolutely get to the technical part and do it right," Porcari said.
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