Congress debates federal oversight for subways

February 12, 2012

More than two years after the deadliest crash in Metro’s history, there are no federal standards in place for making the nation’s subways and light-rail systems safer.

This week, two bills that address safety are expected to go before the House and Senate for debate. One of the proposals would give the Federal Transit Administration oversight and the authority to set standards.

Unlike the railroad, trucking and airline industries, where there are regulations for everything from equipment to the hours engineers and pilots work, rail transit straddles two worlds. Commuter rail systems such as MARC and Virginia Railway Express are subject to federal regulations, but subways, light-rail systems and streetcars are excluded under a law passed more than 45 years ago.

That leaves 47 rail agencies that set their own rules and procedures. Often there are few — if any — state regulations and only minimal oversight from independent authorities that have no enforcement power.

“We have federal safety standards for planes, trains and automobiles. It’s shocking we don’t have them for the 7 million Americans who rely on metro systems every day,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has previously introduced such legislation.

The transit safety measures moving through both houses are tied to reauthorization bills for federal highways and transit spending, so many observers think the initiative has a better chance at passing this time.

The Senate version repeals a 1964 law that prohibits federal oversight of transit agencies and requires the FTA to implement and enforce minimum safety standards. The House bill leaves the law in place and allows the secretary of transportation to certify that state organizations have measures in place for transit safety oversight, according to congressional staffers and safety regulators. The House bill also would end the use of federal gas tax revenue for mass transit, requiring annual appropriations instead.

Push for regulations

A push for regulations followed the 2009 crash on Metro’s Red Line, which killed nine people and injured dozens.

In the months after the accident near the Fort Totten station, lawmakers and other officials rebuked Metro board members and staff for the lack of oversight. The National Transportation Safety Board urged Congress to give the FTA the power to enforce national transit safety standards, and the Obama administration sent legislation that had bipartisan support to Capitol Hill. Those efforts died in Congress.

In its final report on the crash, the NTSB, which investigates ­accidents but has no enforcement authority, criticized Metro for neglecting safety and for disregarding previous NTSB recommendations. It criticized the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), which monitors safety at Metro, for being weak. At the time of the crash, the TOC didn’t have its own office, phone or Web site and had only one full-time employee. The problems were highlighted in an investigative series in The Washington Post.

The District, Maryland and Virginia have since strengthened the TOC, which now works more collaboratively with Metro and employs three full-time and four part-time workers.

They “review and approve [Metro] accident investigations, oversee how Metro manages safety hazards and review and ­approve their corrective action plans,” said Matt Bassett, chairman of the TOC.

But almost two years after the accident, FTA Administrator ­Peter M. Rogoff testified before Congress about how an inconsistency in safety oversight was evident near the site of the accident — and how little things had changed.

“You had an Amtrak line,” he said. “You had the MARC commuter rail line. And you had the Washington Metro line. And there was voluminous federal oversight on two of those tracks, and on the third track there was close to nothing, and that is the status quo and it really is not defensible.”

In the Washington region and nationwide, oversight authority remains weak. About 70 percent of states provide supervision to transit systems by phone and e-mail, according to the FTA. The TOC still has no authority to enforce standards or issue fines — and that is insufficient, some safety investigators and federal regulators say.

“We encourage Congress to act quickly so riders everywhere can rest assured that every trip to work, to the doctor or school is as safe as it can be,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

Safety blueprint

Last year, LaHood named 20 transit experts to a committee to help develop safety standards. The group is developing a blueprint for how the new safety oversight authority would be set up within the FTA.

Having federal standards would “seem logical,” said Maryland Secretary of Transportation Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.

“Maryland would very much like to see the federal process be very clear with safety oversight and monitoring as they are for railroads and aviation,” she said.

Federal safety standards “would be helpful,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton, but he warned that implementing them could become “very complicated” because Metro operates in different jurisdictions and has to deal with multiple governments in the region.

“At least for Metro, I’m uncertain whether we necessarily need it, given where we are today,” Connaughton said, noting that Metro and the TOC have made progress on implementing safety recommendations and improving oversight.

Mort Downey, who heads the safety and security committee of Metro’s board of directors, said “the recommendations and observations of the TOC and the NTSB” helped Metro make changes, but “you can always do more.”

Need for standards

The NTSB acknowledges that Metro has made progress in safety but says that does not eliminate the need for federal oversight. Metro officials said they have submitted 16 of 27 recommendations made by the NTSB after the Red Line crash to the safety board for closure.

“Not every transit agency [has the] same board of directors or management team that [Metro] has,” said Stephen J. Klejst, director of the NTSB’s Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigation, noting that there is a need for broader national standards.

In a December report on an accident that involved an automated people mover at Miami International Airport, the NTSB said that evidence from Metro’s Red Line crash and other rail accidents indicates “inconsistent practices, inadequate standards and marginal effectiveness with respect to state safety oversight of rail transit systems.”

Without federal regulations in place, NTSB officials are concerned that agencies could have an accident and make some minor changes to equipment but not change broader safety policies.

“They could see it as there would be no need to take it any further than, ‘We’ve fixed this problem; we’re okay,’ ” Klejst said.

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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