Subway Oversight Panel Is Virtually Powerless, Despite Metro Safety Concerns

By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 10, 2009

Before June's deadly subway crash, no federal agency stepped in to ensure that Metro found and fixed the electrical circuits now suspected of contributing to the worst accident in the system's history.

That's because none is authorized to. Although the federal government regulates the safe operation of buses, Amtrak, airplanes and even ferries, it cedes primary oversight of subway safety to local panels -- in the case of Metro, a little-known organization known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee.

The committee has no direct regulatory authority over safety and cannot order Metro to make changes. It has no employees of its own and no dedicated office, phone or Web site. It borrows space for its monthly meetings, which officials said no member of the public has ever attended.

"No one knows we exist," acknowledged vice chairman Matthew Bassett.

The Federal Transit Administration and congressional auditors have described the committee in the past as lacking resources and having a cumbersome administrative process. Federal officials say the amount of time the committee and its contractors devoted to safety oversight last year was the equivalent of less than two full-time employees.

The committee was thrust into public view this week after it released records to The Washington Post revealing that in March, a Metro train on Capitol Hill came "dangerously close" to another, halting only after the operator hit the emergency brake. The incident was described in an April 29 letter in which the committee asked Metro to investigate and report back. The committee has no power to demand a response and, to date, the committee says Metro has made no formal report to it on the incident.

Since the June 22 tragedy that claimed nine lives and injured 80 people, momentum has been building for federal regulation of subway systems nationwide.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has created a committee of senior agency officials to find ways to close what his department describes as a gap in oversight, created by ceding safety issues to regional transit authorities.

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) has introduced legislation that would create new federal safety standards for subway and elevated train systems. A companion bill was introduced in the House by Democratic Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who represents parts of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Critics welcome the initiatives, charging that under the current system members of the Tri-State Oversight Committee in effect oversee themselves.

"What exists is a sham and can't be made to work," said Jack Corbett of http://MetroRiders.Org, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. "People who are on [the committee] are employees of the entities they would regulate. The head of the committee works for the District Department of Transportation. If their job was to ensure safety, they would be telling their bosses what to do. It's a built-in conflict of interest."

Some state-level regulators have far more authority. For instance, the subway system in San Francisco, which is subject to muscular oversight by state regulators, discovered problems with flickering circuits and was directed to install a collision-avoidance backup system decades ago.

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