U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday rejected a proposal by the nation’s top safety board that would have beefed up federal oversight of Metrorail, subjecting the failure-prone subway system to stricter safety regulations and tougher sanctions for violations.
In an “urgent” recommendation last week, Christopher A. Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the Federal Transit Administration’s system for monitoring subway safety nationwide has been ineffective in Metro’s case. Hart urged Foxx to shift oversight of Metro from the FTA to the Federal Railroad Administration, a bigger agency with greater enforcement authority.
But Foxx said no.
The Transportation Department “does not believe that the NTSB recommendation is either the wisest or fastest way to bring about the necessary safety improvements” at Metro, said Foxx spokeswoman Suzanne Emmerling. “While we have made similar findings of oversight and management deficiency in recent inspections and audits, we disagree with their recommendation,” she said in an e-mail.
Rather than transfer Metro oversight from one agency to another within the department, Foxx has a different plan, Emmerling said. She said the plan would focus on reforms to strengthen state oversight of Metro.
“The NTSB is not wrong to assert that urgent action is needed; we just believe that there is an even more effective and faster way to achieve the safety goals we all share,” Emmerling said.
One of Metro’s biggest advocates and toughest critics, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), reacted with skepticism Thursday.
“There has to be more oversight” and “I am on record as supporting the NTSB’s recommendation,” Connolly said. “If [Foxx] has a better plan, then let’s hear it. But until and unless he tells us about it, I support the NTSB.”
Suggesting that Foxx’s decision might have been related to infighting between the transit and railroad administrations, Connolly said: “This is about public safety. This is not about bureaucratic turf.”
But Emmerling said the NTSB proposal “would unnecessarily complicate and delay safety improvements that [Metro] workers and riders deserve.”
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said the safety board had no immediate public reaction to Foxx’s announcement but probably would at a later date. Metro also declined to comment.
The Federal Transit Administration said it was happy to keep oversight responsibility.
“We take all recommendations of the NTSB seriously, but in this case, the NTSB is recommending shifting safety oversight from one agency to another,” the FTA said in a statement. “And these agencies have different authorities and areas of expertise. The NTSB is not wrong to assert that urgent action is needed; we just believe that there is an even more effective and faster way to achieve the safety goals we all share.”
Foxx has taken an active interest in Metro. In July, he met privately with the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the D.C. mayor in hopes of crafting a solution for the transit system’s problems.
His rejection of the NTSB recommendation comes amid growing pressure from the public and members of Congress for a solution to the myriad safety problems that have plagued the nation’s second-busiest subway system, especially in recent months.
Since the Jan. 12 smoke crisis in a Yellow Line tunnel, in which scores of riders were sickened and one passenger died, Metro has been dogged by a series of service breakdowns 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 the agency’s financial concerns.
Metro has been functioning under an interim chief executive since Richard Sarles retired as general manager 10 months ago. Meanwhile, numerous independent reports have identified serious safety, management and financial lapses at the transit agency. But solutions have been difficult to come by.
The Federal Railroad Administration oversees “heavy” systems — freight and commuter lines, such as MARC and VRE, as well as Amtrak.
In his 11-page recommendation last week, Hart proposed reclassifying Metro as a commuter railroad, which would put it under the purview of the Federal Railroad Administration rather than the Federal Transit Administration. He noted that the FRA has “robust inspection, oversight, regulatory, and enforcement authority,” while he described the FTA as relatively toothless.
The FTA has only recently begun to build its oversight capabilities after Congress gave the agency new safety authority over subway, bus and light-rail operations in 2012.
FTA officials have said that they already have exercised that power to address safety concerns at Metro. Three weeks after the fatal smoke incident, the agency launched a three-month safety-management inspection of Metro.
The resulting report, issued by the FTA in June, identified significant safety lapses, including a lack of adequate training for personnel and a chronically understaffed, chaotic rail-operations control center, where train controllers monitor the subway in real time.
Before 2012, the federal government had no role in overseeing the safety of the nation’s subway, light-rail or bus systems. Instead, that responsibility was left to the states, through a network of “State Safety Oversight” agencies, operating under FTA auspices.
The FTA-created agency that oversees Metro safety, called the Tri-State Oversight Committee, is made up of transportation professionals from Maryland, Virginia and the District. In his recommendation, Hart said the committee has been largely ineffective, partly because it has no enforcement power over Metro. Also, the committee does not conduct independent safety investigations.
Since a 2009 crash on the Red Line that killed nine people, attempts have been made to beef up the committee’s authority, but those efforts have failed, Hart said.
Noting that the NTSB has initiated 11 investigations of Metro accidents in 33 years, Hart said, “Many of the NTSB investigations determined that [Metro’s] inadequate management of its operation contributed to the event.” He concluded that the Tri-State Oversight Committee “cannot perform effective safety oversight” of Metrorail.
The FTA agreed, saying in a statement that the committee “has been ineffective, and we are prepared to take aggressive steps to ensure [Metro] has appropriate safety oversight.”
John D. Porcari, a former deputy U.S. transportation secretary and now a top official of construction giant Parsons Brinkerhoff, a major Metro contractor, said he thinks the NTSB’s recommendation is “not practical.” Even though the Federal Railroad Administration has more oversight experience than the FTA, it does not have sufficient experience with urban rapid-transit systems, he said.
“Subways have different operating characteristics than freight and commuter passenger rail,” Porcari said. “There are different train control systems and rolling stock, so there’s not as much overlap as you might think.”
And despite a larger staff (the FRA has more than 400 inspectors), a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the railroad agency was able to inspect fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s railroads each year. Further exacerbating the problem: About 30 percent of the administration’s field safety staffers are expected to retire in five years.