Where Metro and a Federal Agency Fell Short

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The June 22 Metro accident that killed nine people and injured 80 has left questions unanswered. However, even before the National Transportation Safety Board determines a probable cause for this accident, two things are clear from the initial facts: In the face of limited resources, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ignored crucial NTSB recommendations, prioritizing savings over safety; and, more important, the lack of federal oversight allowed this dangerous prioritization to occur.

Metro's budgetary woes are well known. Soon after the accident, WMATA officials pointed to the agency's tight budget, throwing up their hands and deflecting blame. Yet more funds would not have addressed the inadequate safety culture at WMATA. Although the agency successfully addressed 20 recommendations that the NTSB made after a similar 1996 accident, the replacement of older cars, which was recommended after an accident in 2004, was deemed too expensive. Phasing out the cars ahead of schedule would cost upward of $1 billion, which WMATA said it could not afford. Nonetheless, the agency had other options.

In lieu of a recall, older cars should have been slated to follow stricter operating procedures, such as being placed between newer, safer cars or following different speed and distance guidelines -- measures now being implemented. Additional training could have been provided to employees operating these cars. Minimally, given the known risk of "telescoping," WMATA should have retrofitted these cars with anti-climbers, devices to ensure that in a collision one car does not climb onto another. As a last resort, WMATA should have raised fares to offset the cost of the phaseout, prioritizing the safe transit of passengers over cost and convenience.

Sadly, the agency's inaction was predictable. It is unlikely that WMATA ignored NTSB recommendations because it was indifferent to passenger safety. Rather, the agency probably viewed the chance of a severe accident as small enough to obviate the need for serious action. This tendency to underestimate risk in cost-benefit calculations is not unique to WMATA, and it dictates the need for federal safety standards.

WMATA operates with essentially no federal oversight, despite its reliance on federal funding for nearly half of its capital improvement costs. In addition to the direct federal investment of $260 million in formula grants and discretionary funds, the federal government provides thousands of its employees with reduced or free fares, essentially a federal subsidy of Metro. On top of these regular sources of federal funding, Congress has appropriated $34 million for Metro to purchase new rail cars. Yet, the Federal Transit Administration is little more than a grant-authorizing organization, lacking the authority to set or enforce standards.

While the agency conducts "voluntary safety audits" and publishes guidelines and recommendations, it lacks the teeth that agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration have. As a result, the FTA takes a hands-off approach to safety, delegating oversight to state and local authorities and spending a mere 0.11 percent of its budget on safety (compared with the 44 percent of the FAA budget devoted annually to safety oversight).

That an agency with an annual budget of $10.3 billion does not have authority to set safety standards is troubling. The NTSB's recommendations to WMATA mean little if the federal agency providing funds for Metro lacks the power to make the recommendations compulsory. Rather than letting it remain an appropriating mechanism, Congress should give the FTA the jurisdiction to enact and enforce federal safety standards applicable to all transit systems. Modeled after the FAA, the FTA could then use lessons learned from each accident nationally. A system of uniform regulations is critical to preventing continued operation of a tombstone transit system, whereby local improvements are made only after a tragedy has occurred.

The writer was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001. He is managing partner of Hall & Associates LLC, a crisis management and government relations firm.

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