Metro crash anniversary nearing, LaHood pushes Hill for mass-transit oversight

Two Red Line Metrorail trains crashed June 22, 2009 between the Fort Totten and Takoma Park stations, killing nine, including one train operator.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

As the anniversary of the Metrorail crash that claimed nine lives approaches, the Obama administration is quietly making the rounds on Capitol Hill to push for federal oversight of the nation's mass-transit systems.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is meeting with key congressional leaders this week to press for movement on legislation that would empower federal agencies with oversight authority, once action on the financial overhaul bill is finalized.

"We're coming up on the first anniversary" of the crash, LaHood said Thursday. "But it's not just about [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority]. We've also had crashes in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco."

LaHood has described the June 22 Red Line accident and the February 2009 crash near Buffalo of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which killed 50 people, as the worst moments of his tenure as transportation czar.

In the aftermath of fatalities on Metro, LaHood said he was surprised to discover that the federal government lacked the authority to set safety standards for mass transit that it has for air travel, motorized vehicles and Amtrak.

An administration bill introduced last year would give federal agencies the same oversight for light-rail and subway systems unless the state agencies that currently have jurisdiction beefed up their efforts to meet new federal standards. If they failed to do so, the Federal Transit Administration could assume direct oversight.

"We want to be able to set some very good safety standards," LaHood said. "We want some oversight. We want an agency that can step in when it needs to."

Maryland, Virginia and the District recently agreed to strengthen the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the regional authority responsible for overseeing Metro safety, a body that federal officials have criticized as weak. Leaders of those jurisdictions said recently that the committee could be replaced by a more rigorous federal or regional supervisory agency.

LaHood met this week with Senate leaders, including the banking committee's chairman, Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), and its ranking Republican, Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), as well as committee member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Dodd's committee staff has written its own version of transit oversight legislation, which LaHood said could readily be reconciled with the administration proposal.

On the House side, LaHood said oversight legislation has the support of Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the transportation committee.

LaHood acknowledged that the transit bill won't get attention until the financial overhaul package is resolved, "but we want to get it on the radar screen of Congress."

LaHood said he and other DOT officials have been acutely aware of the issues facing Metro "since we all live here."

"We have a great amount of trust in the WMATA board," he said. "They've taken a lot of good steps."

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