The top U.S. transportation official on Wednesday said he will not allow efforts to create a new safety agency to oversee Metro lag, repeating his threat to withhold millions in funding from the District, Maryland and Virginia if they don’t act soon.
“This is one that really can’t wait,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “You would think that if you have thousands of people traveling on this system every day, from all these jurisdictions, that safety would be something that nobody would let fall off the table. And yet it has.”
This month, federal officials learned that the jurisdictions don’t expect to pursue legislation this year to establish a new safety oversight body for Metro. Foxx told them that was unacceptable and has given them a year to create the panel or risk losing millions in federal transportation funding.
At a meeting with reporters Wednesday, Foxx underscored the need for the three jurisdictions to accelerate their efforts.
“I don’t agree with the premise that we can’t make progress this year,” he said. “We fully expect the governors and the mayor and their legislatures to figure out a path forward.”
The topic had been on the agenda of a Thursday lunch meeting of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in Annapolis. But the gathering was canceled late Wednesday so that McAuliffe could visit areas affected by the day’s torrential rain. Officials said the meeting would be rescheduled as soon as possible.
“We agree and understand where Secretary Foxx is coming from,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said Wednesday. “Governor McAuliffe wants to do whatever is necessary to get this safety commission stood up.”
Foxx’s comments came amid renewed concerns about whether he made the right decision to transfer safety oversight of Metro’s rail operations to the Federal Transit Administration.
Foxx took the unprecedented step late last year with the understanding that it would be temporary — until the three jurisdictions could develop a compact to create an oversight agency. The move was made after federal officials determined that the agency charged with the task, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, was woefully inadequate for the job.
But in giving oversight to FTA, Foxx ignored an “urgent” recommendation from the nation’s top safety agency to make the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency with a long history of safety oversight, responsible for Metro safety.
In a letter to Foxx this month, Christopher A. Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, reiterated the agency’s belief that FRA would be more effective at monitoring and policing the nation’s second-busiest subway system.
“We are concerned that you have tasked the FTA with assuming the authority of the [state safety oversight agency] because we believe that the FTA has a very limited ability to effectively oversee” the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Hart wrote. He added that the NTSB was not alone in its concerns, noting that the Department of Transportation’s inspector general has launched a review of FTA oversight of Metro.
“We believe there are many uncertainties associated with the proposed FTA approach to WMATA oversight,” Hart said in the letter.
“Our recommendations for WMATA to be ruled a commuter authority and for the FRA to assume oversight responsibility for WMATA Metrorail eliminates these uncertainties because the FRA is an experienced and appropriately staffed regulatory safety oversight agency,” he said.
But Foxx on Wednesday said he was comfortable with his decision.
“I don’t see a purpose of engaging in a back and forth [with the NTSB],” he said. “We take NTSB recommendations very seriously. We stress [tested] the idea that the NTSB provided to us. My decision then, as I explained back then, was that a faster, more efficient and frankly more effective way to do this was to vest that authority with the FTA.”
Foxx said that FTA officials already have conducted 39 inspections of Metro’s rail operations, compared with the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which Foxx said had done none. But when pressed, officials declined to say what they found during those visits, saying only that they identified instances that “need remedial action.”
“The important thing is that there is someone — us — looking over their shoulder to ensure that things they say are getting done are getting done,” said Therese W. McMillan, acting FTA administrator.
Foxx has taken an unusually hands-on approach to Metro safety. In July, frustrated with the lack of progress in the creation of the new oversight agency, he summoned Bowser, Hogan and McAuliffe to a meeting at his office. At the time, the three leaders pledged to work together to form the new body.
Foxx also said he would be sending a letter to the leaders of the state legislatures urging them to move quickly on the matter.
There has been growing pressure from the public and members of Congress for a solution to the myriad safety problems that have plagued Metro, especially in the last year.
Since the Jan. 12, 2015, Yellow Line smoke incident, which killed one rider and injured scores more, Metro has been dogged by safety lapses and chronic service disruptions that have left riders and elected officials questioning whether it can provide safe, reliable service. Adding to the transit agency’s woes, ridership is on the decline, which has exacerbated its financial problems.
Foxx and others say the formation of a new independent safety oversight body with the power to force Metro to address critical safety concerns, and hold transit agency officials responsible when they fail to do so, is crucial to that effort.
He was emphatic that every conversation with District, Maryland and Virginia officials going forward will include questions about Metro safety, adding that for him, Metro safety also is personal: Members of his staff as well as his family use the system.
“We’re not going to stop until this gets fixed,”he said. “Let’s get moving and get it done in 2016.”