FTA getting set for role in transit safety

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Federal Transit Administration pushed ahead last week with preparations for unprecedented regulation of public transit agencies, directing a new advisory committee to draft a model for safety oversight of the agencies.

The new Transit Rail Advisory Committee for Safety (TRACS) - created by the Department of Transportation and composed of nearly two dozen management and labor representatives from transit agencies across the country - held its first meeting Thursday and Friday in Washington.

"This is the first time the FTA has pulled together so many participants to strategically plan what the future of safety oversight should look like," said Richard Clark, director of the safety division of the California Public Utilities Commission.

Federal regulation of public transit is part of a proposal by the Obama administration to bolster safety in the wake of the fatal June 2009 Metro Red Line crash in Washington and rail transit accidents in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere.

In announcing its findings on the Red Line crash, the National Transportation Safety Board in July called on the Transportation Department to "continue to seek the authority to provide safety oversight of rail fixed guideway transportation systems."

The FTA still lacks the power to enforce minimum safety standards for the nation's transit systems, so the new committee cannot start work on regulations. But Congress is considering legislation - supported by the Obama administration - that would give the FTA that authority. FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff said he is optimistic the full Senate will consider the bill before the November elections. It was passed by the Senate Banking Committee in July.

"Our principal reason for getting this group appointed and getting it going now is so we can hit the ground running on transit safety regulation once that authority is granted," Rogoff said.

The committee will serve as a resource for those who oversee safety at public transit agencies and advise the FTA on how to strengthen those entities. Currently, he said, such oversight is provided by 27 state organizations, many of which are weak and lack minimum requirements in areas such as conducting inspections or the education of their personnel.

The committee will also examine the safety management systems developed by airlines and other organizations and work on adapting them for public transit. "You can't presume that what will work for NASA or an airline will work for the light-rail system in Phoenix," Rogoff said.

Thomas Prendergast, president of New York City Transit and an alternate TRACS member, said local transit agencies generally welcome the assistance.

"If you go back 30 or 40 years, these agencies were totally self-regulated," Prendergast said. As the number of rail transit agencies has grown to more than two dozen, he said, so has the openness to oversight. "What was rebuffed and resisted is now more willingly accepted," he said.

The FTA has sharpened its scrutiny of Metro since the June 2009 crash, which killed nine people, and conducted a safety audit that produced scathing results last spring. Last week, Metro released its latest response, dated Aug. 13, to the FTA audit

The FTA said Metro had taken "acceptable" actions on all 10 of the FTA audit findings, which covered such concerns as staffing, communications at Metro ' s safety department and developing a system for analyzing and managing safety hazards.

But Metro has not been able to close out any of the recommendations, in many cases because the FTA is requiring additional paperwork, said James M. Dougherty, Metro's safety officer. He said most are expected to be completed by year's end.

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