Metro could face takeover if Senate safety ultimatum isn't met

By Joe Stephens and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; B01

Four senior U.S. senators made a bipartisan call on Monday for Metro to make immediate improvements in safety or face "direct federal intervention," which could include a federal takeover of the transit agency's board of directors.

Simultaneously, another group of senators introduced legislation authorizing the federal government to assume responsibility for safety regulation of the nation's subway and light-rail systems. Their bill would authorize the Obama administration to set standards and take over safety monitoring in states where existing agencies are found to be inadequate.

The developments escalated the battle over Metro's future to an unprecedented level and moved the focus to the transit agency's boardroom. The executive suite is already in transition. Following a string of accidents and revelations of lapses in oversight, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said four of his top executives would be leaving or reassigned and announced his retirement effective April 2. The personnel moves were accompanied by plans for a sweeping reorganization.

In a letter to Metro's board on Monday, the four senators asserted that the transit agency had suffered "an institutional failure" and called for the board to make substantive reforms.

"We believe that the federal government should consider all possible options to ensure the safety of the Metrorail system," the letter said.

The letter was signed by Democrats Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), the chairman of the banking committee, and Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee on housing, transportation and community development. The letter also was signed by the ranking Republicans on the respective committees, Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) and David Vitter (La.).

Federal intervention could include restrictions on funding, additional investigations or a federal takeover of Metro's governing board, said Afshin Mohamadi, a spokesman for Menendez. It is unclear how a takeover could be accomplished, but any additional authority needed could be added to the pending legislation.

The letter was sent to Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin on the eve of a three-day hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the June 22 crash that killed nine people. The hearing is expected to look into systemic safety issues, including evidence that Metro failed to act decisively before the crash in response to signs that its subway control system was fatally flawed.

During the past eight months, an investigative series in The Washington Post has disclosed a series of lapses in oversight at Metro. Documents showed that the automated crash-avoidance system that failed in the deadly June crash also had failed in 2005 and in early 2009. Those lapses nearly led to catastrophic crashes, but Metro officials did not conduct exhaustive testing to rectify the problems, records and interviews showed.

The senators' letter said that Metro has shown "a troubling pattern of safety incidents," including 17 deaths in seven incidents during the past five years, "far outpacing the number of fatalities on any other mass transit system in the country." The letter also noted that Metro has suffered nine worker fatalities on the tracks since 2005.

"Indeed, since 2002 [Metro] has accounted for 42 percent of all track-worker fatalities in the nation," the letter said. "Additionally, [Metro] has experienced a number of non-fatal incidents including a collision in 2004; derailments in 2007 and 2008; and a derailment, a near-miss, and a crash that injured three workers in 2009." On Feb. 12, three passengers were slightly injured when a Red Line train derailed.

The letter labeled that record as unacceptable, and said that "such a pattern cannot be viewed as a string of isolated 'accidents.' "

The letter said that in recent months the banking committee had heard from representatives of Metro and the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors safety at Metro, regarding the system's efforts to address the "persistent" safety failures.

"However, these steps do not appear to fully address the systemic failures," the letter said. "We believe it is imperative to hear from [Metro] regarding its plans for addressing the immediate issues, as well as a long-term comprehensive plan for ensuring that [subway] riders can once again feel safe and secure using the Metrorail system."

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said the agency plans "to schedule [a briefing] as soon as possible."

The bill introduced Monday would for the first time allow the U.S. Department of Transportation to do for subways what it does for airlines and Amtrak: set and enforce federal regulations to ensure that millions of passengers get to their destinations safely. The legislation, which would affect every subway and light-rail system in the country, was introduced at the request of the Obama administration, which singled out Metro in calling for federal oversight in November.

The bill was introduced by Dodd, Menendez, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.).

Currently, a patchwork of state agencies is responsible for monitoring subway safety. That system is largely viewed as weak and ineffective.

Under the legislation, dubbed the Public Transportation Safety Program Act, states could keep their oversight bodies if they met new federal standards. Those agencies would have to pass safety-certification programs and demonstrate that they had an adequately trained staff. A similar bill is being prepared in the House.

The Federal Transit Administration would assume direct oversight for states that opted out of safety monitoring. The agency also would take over for state organizations that the administration determined to be inadequate. If subway or light-rail systems did not meet the new safety standards, they would risk losing federal funding for capital expenditures.

The FTA also would assume new powers to inspect subways, issue subpoenas, impose penalties and seek criminal prosecutions. Violations of regulations could lead to prison sentences of up to 10 years.

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