The District, Maryland and Virginia have agreed on a plan to create an independent agency that will oversee safety at Metro, officials said Wednesday. But whether the deal will be enough to satisfy the nation’s top transportation official — and stave off the potential loss of at least $15 million in federal transit funds — remains to be seen.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has been outspoken in his frustration with elected officials in the three jurisdictions and the slow pace of their efforts to create a Metro safety oversight office.
In a meeting with reporters last week, Foxx reiterated his threat to withhold millions in federal funding from the jurisdictions if they fail to act on legislation to create the agency by the end of this year.
It appears the pressure worked.
On Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that spells out the powers, governance, finance and jurisdiction of a new office overseeing the safety of Metro.
“The Metro system is an enormous economic asset for the entire region, and ensuring that it is as safe as possible must be priority one,” McAuliffe said. “I look forward to continuing our work with Maryland and Washington, D.C., to execute this MOU and establish the Metro Safety Commission as soon as possible.”
But there is a catch. Under the agreement, D.C. officials would act to create the agency this year. Maryland and Virginia indicated that they would not be able to act on the matter until 2017, because their legislative sessions conclude shortly.
In his meeting with reporters last week, Foxx said delaying action beyond this year was unacceptable. His office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a longtime supporter of Metro and a vocal critic of the agency for its safety and financial failings, said he was pleased about the agreement, but added, “Frankly, it’s overdue — at least a year or two overdue.”
As for Foxx’s threat to withhold transportation funding for the three jurisdictions unless a safety commission is established this year, Connolly said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get state legislative authorization for the commission before 2017, especially in Virginia.
Although the Maryland General Assembly has a month remaining in its session, which is due to end April 11, Virginia’s session is scheduled to end March 12. Before seeking votes on state funding for the commission, Connolly said, the two governors have to lay political groundwork, educating lawmakers from outside the Washington region about “the critical importance” of the Metro system.
With Virginia General Assembly members just a little more that a week from adjourning, McAuliffe could call them back into special session, Connolly said. “But that would be expensive,” he said, and perhaps controversial because the Metro situation is an issue specific to Northern Virginia — and not a big concern for the constituents of state lawmakers from distant districts.
Connolly said Foxx “has some flexibility in taking cognizance of that, but he is also correct politically, it seems to me, to keep the heat on.”
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said it will take time to work through the details of how the oversight agency will work, but officials will provide Foxx with a schedule so he will know that the effort is moving forward.
“The draft is just that — a draft that is still being reviewed and updated,” said Erin Henson, spokeswoman for Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. “It is not ready to be shared at this point.”
The memorandum of understanding says the three jurisdictions have “developed a draft interstate compact that defines the powers, governance, financing and jurisdiction” of the proposed safety commission. But Layne said the details are unlikely to be released until a final version is completed.
Late last year, Foxx transferred safety oversight of Metro’s rail operations to the Federal Transit Administration with the understanding that it would be temporary — until the three jurisdictions could develop a compact to create an oversight agency.
“Candidly, I don’t think the FTA wants to be stuck with this,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). “I think they want the jurisdictions taking care of their own — and I don’t blame them.”
The push by Foxx comes amid renewed concerns about whether he made the right decision to transfer safety oversight of Metro’s rail operations to the FTA.
The unprecedented move was made after federal officials determined that the agency charged with the task, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, was ill- equipped for the job.
But in giving oversight to the FTA, Foxx ignored an “urgent” recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board to make the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency with a long history of safety oversight, responsible for Metro safety. The NTSB recently wrote to Foxx reiterating its concerns.
Foxx has taken an unusually hands-on approach to Metro safety. In July, frustrated with the lack of progress in the creation of the oversight agency, he summoned Bowser, Hogan and McAuliffe to a meeting. The three leaders pledged to work together to form the new body.
Foxx this week also sent a letter to the leaders of the Maryland and Virginia legislatures urging them to move quickly on the matter.
Said Connolly: “I would hope Secretary Foxx would approach this issue with that level of sympathy, although I certainly support his sense of urgency and his willingness to keep the pressure on the respective jurisdictions. Because what the past has taught us is, absent that pressure, they’re not going to get it done with any deliberate speed.”