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Federal safety oversight of subways, light rail proposed

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By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Obama administration will propose that the federal government take over safety regulation of the nation's subway and light-rail systems, responding to what it says is haphazard and ineffective oversight by state agencies.

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Under the proposal, the U.S. Department of Transportation would do for transit what it does for airlines and Amtrak: set and enforce federal regulations to ensure that millions of passengers get to their destinations safely. Administration officials said the plan will be presented in coming weeks to Congress, which must approve a change in the law.

The proposal would affect every subway and light-rail system in the country, including large systems in Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Administration officials said they are responding to a growing number of collisions, derailments and worker fatalities on subways -- and in particular to the fatal June 22 crash on Metro's Red Line and failures in oversight that have surfaced in its wake. Those failures have been the subject of an ongoing investigative series in The Washington Post.

"After the [Metro] train crash, we were all sitting around here scratching our heads, saying, 'Hey, we've got to do something about this,' " Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview. "And we discovered that there's not much we could do, because the law wouldn't allow us to do it."

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency had not seen details of the proposal. "The bottom line is we welcome additional safety oversight with open arms," she said.

LaHood said he expects the proposal to be welcomed on Capitol Hill, but some Republicans said Saturday night that more federal oversight might not be the answer.

"The administration is right to raise this issue, but federal regulation should only apply to systems that cross state lines," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who had not been briefed on the plan.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) said the proposal sounded like a credible way to fix a broken oversight system. "Without seeing the details, it would make sense," Wolf said. "Some states have done a good job, while others have not. There needs to be consistent safety enforcement."

Critical details of the plan remain unclear, including how much it would cost, where the money would come from, how the federal government would enforce its rules and whether it is equipped to carry out enhanced oversight. Existing state oversight bodies could remain in place to enforce the new regulations but would need to meet federal standards and gain federal approval.

Safety experts praised the initiative.

"It's long overdue," said Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board until August. "I applaud the secretary and his team for recognizing the gap in oversight in the current law. I hope that Congress will act on it swiftly."


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