White House seeks power to oversee rail-transit safety

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (Susan Walsh - AP)
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By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood unveiled on Tuesday details of the administration's plan to take over safety regulation of the nation's subway and light-rail systems, a proposal that would give federal authorities the power to bring lawsuits and seek criminal sentences.

Testifying before a House transportation subcommittee, LaHood said the move was necessitated by a recent series of high-profile accidents, particularly the June 22 Metro crash that killed nine people in Northeast Washington.

"Everyone in this region woke up the day after that crash and said: 'Who's responsible for safety?' And there was no one," LaHood said.

He called on lawmakers to pass the Public Transportation Safety Program Act of 2009, which seeks to replace a patchwork of state-run safety-monitoring organizations.

Federal officials testified that the plan would cost "well under" $100 million and could triple or quadruple the number of safety monitors across the nation. Those monitors would also be expected to have a much higher level of experience and expertise than those now in place. Implementing the plan would take about three years, LaHood said.

Committee members generally praised the effort.

"This is a very, very important move on safety," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), the transportation panel's chairman. "Safety is a partnership. . . . When one partner doesn't do the job well, the other has to take the lead."

Some Republican lawmakers questioned how the plan would affect existing state safety programs and whether it would increase the deficit. Administration officials said they hoped to offset any increased costs by trimming other programs.

The Transportation Department enforces safety regulations for airlines and Amtrak but is prohibited by law from doing so for rail-transit systems.

LaHood also announced plans to establish a transit rail advisory committee of specialists from transit agencies, organized labor and academia that would guide regulatory efforts.

Under the proposed bill, existing state oversight bodies could remain in place to enforce the new regulations but would need to meet federal standards and gain federal approval.

Federal personnel and approved state workers would have the power to conduct inspections, investigations and audits. They could test equipment, subway cars and train operators. They would be given subpoena power and could obtain restraining orders and injunctions, seek civil penalties and pursue criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison for safety violations.

LaHood will present his proposal to the Senate at a subcommittee hearing on Thursday. Rail transit has been rapidly growing in popularity, with more than 14 million people boarding subway and light-rail trains in the United States each day. Injuries from rail-transit accidents have been increasing as well. From 2003 to 2008, the national rate of passenger injuries from crashes on subway and light-rail systems jumped 182 percent.

An examination by The Washington Post found the June accident was not the first time that Metro's supposedly fail-safe crash-avoidance system had lapsed.

The Post investigation also uncovered problems at the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which is supposed to monitor safety on the Metro system but lacks any direct regulatory authority.

In response to the articles, local and federal lawmakers have demanded changes, and Metro officials have vowed to work more closely with the oversight committee.

After the hearing, Federal Transit Administration chief Peter Rogoff said the proposed bill would give oversight groups "teeth to compel the attention of transit agencies they oversee."

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