Senator should release hold on blocking federal oversight of Metro system

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, August 12, 2010; B01

Lots of controversies swirl around Metro and its safety problems, but there's widespread agreement on one thing: The federal government should get the same powers to set safety standards for subways that it has for Amtrak and commuter trains.

But the agreement isn't unanimous.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, whose state doesn't have a subway, is using one of those notorious Senate "holds" to block a bill with strong bipartisan support that would give the Federal Transit Administration powers that might have prevented last year's fatal Red Line crash.

His action threatens passage of common-sense legislation backed even by agencies and companies in the industry it would regulate, including Metro. Coburn objects to creating a new government program with added spending, but the money is a pittance compared to the need: $66 million over three years, which would represent a whopping one dollar out of every 500 in the FTA's budget.

If the bill dies, as some supporters expect, it would illustrate how dysfunctional our political system has become. In a narrow sense, it would be another example of the abuse of holds, a form of senatorial privilege that allows a single senator to prevent a bill from going to the floor for consideration. Coburn is one of the Senate's leading offenders.

More broadly, the bill's demise would illustrate how our wariness of government can reach self-destructive extremes. Hostility to the public sector runs so strong that some conservatives object to any expansion of its powers, even when nonpartisan experts such as the National Transportation Safety Board say lives are at stake.

The bill would be a plus for the Washington region, because it would help make sure that the Metro board and local politicians follow through on their promises to raise Metro's safety standards.

Metro is making all the right noises now, in the wake of the tough NTSB report faulting the system for the crash north of the Fort Totten Station in Northeast.

At an unprecedented meeting Monday with the NTSB, Metro board members seemed to want to hear what the safety experts had to say about how they could do better. The atmosphere was surprisingly civil, considering that NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman had called Metro "tone deaf" over safety.

Fixing the system's problems is going to take years, though. One way to ensure that Metro sticks to the task would be to designate the federal government as the enforcer.

The absurdity of the existing situation is evident at Fort Totten. The federal government enforces safety standards for two tracks there used by Amtrak and MARC, but not for the two used by Metro.

The Senate bill would empower the FTA to do things such as set standards for the crashworthiness of railcars and timetables for the mandatory removal of unsafe ones. Fewer people would have died or been hurt in the Red Line crash if Metro had upgraded its railcars, as the NTSB had recommended.

The bill still wouldn't solve the problem of finding money to buy safer cars, but it would increase pressure on Metro to do so. The American Public Transportation Association and Metro both favor having clear standards set nationwide so they know what the expectations are.

The bill would also give enforcement authority and federal money to state transit oversight committees, which are too weak and poor to do an adequate job. Investigations after the Red Line crash found that the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which was supposed to oversee Metro, had been woefully ineffective.

"Rail transit is largely a safe mode, but we are very concerned that as the systems age, and as experienced employees retire in greater numbers, that it's very important that we have reasonable standards in place to ensure the systems remain safe," FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said.

The bill (S 3638) seemed headed for easy passage this summer. The Senate Banking Committee approved it unanimously by voice vote in June. GOP support wasn't surprising, given that one of its sponsors is the committee's ranking Republican and a staunch conservative, Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.). The House was prepared to approve the bill once it got through the Senate. Then Coburn intervened. He ended hopes of passing it before the Senate adjourned this month.

The bill's backers haven't given up. Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), one of the first politicians to raise alarms about Metro safety, went to Coburn's office Aug. 3 to urge him to lift the hold. He refused, but his office said Wednesday that he was reviewing the legislation and emphasized the need to cut spending elsewhere to cover the bill's costs.

If necessary, supporters would try to attach the bill to some "must-pass" legislation. But there isn't much time between Labor Day and early October, when the Senate will adjourn before midterm elections.

The silver lining in the Red Line tragedy has been the jump in public attention to the need to help Metro and other mass-transit systems. The Senate bill is a direct result. It shouldn't be killed by one senator's knee-jerk opposition.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Fridays on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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