Federal oversight of light-rail, subway safety is past due

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

IT'S A SHAME that it has taken accidents, deaths and injuries for the federal government to wake up to the danger posed by inadequate, and in some cases nonexistent, oversight of many or most subway and light-rail systems around the nation. By the same token, it is to the Obama administration's credit that it has begun grappling with this intolerable problem after less than a year in office.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told The Post that his department intends to push legislation that would allow the federal government to provide safety oversight for subways and light rail. The feds already regulate and enforce safety standards for air travel, ports, commuter trains, Amtrak and ferries. The fact that subways and light rail are exempt is due to circumstances and thinking that applied a half-century ago but that have been irrelevant for decades and that make no sense.

Tens of millions of people ride these systems daily, but too often -- Washington's own subway being an egregious example -- oversight falls to poorly staffed, underfunded, ill-equipped state agencies. In Metro's case, its regulatory body, an obscure agency called the Tri-State Oversight Committee, has no office, no staff and no telephones. The Boston Globe reported that in Massachusetts, two or three engineers are in charge of overseeing safety for Boston's transit system, the nation's fifth-busiest, while also examining complaints about tow-truck companies.

Add to that a pattern of chronic underinvestment in the modernization and upkeep of critical infrastructure, plus the reality of budget cuts taking their toll on transit systems, and the result is accidents waiting to happen. The crash in June that killed nine people and injured many more on Metro's Red Line was not only a terrible tragedy, it was also a chilling portent.

The current setup, by which more than two dozen state agencies are in charge of keeping local transit systems safe, is a hodgepodge. Some larger states do a creditable job (California, Pennsylvania, New York); other structures are toothless. The lack of uniform safety rules is worrying: How can transit professionals be taught and trained when there is no nationwide standard?

Setting up effective and muscular oversight may raise questions of cost. Whether federal transportation officials implement a new regulatory regime or simply oversee the work that state agencies are doing, there is a likelihood of mandated repairs and new standards. Some local transit agencies, already strapped for cash, may resist these mandates. They may need federal help to meet these costs. But if those costs are the price of avoiding accidents, they will have to borne -- and better sooner, before more terrible accidents require them.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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