Stepped up federal oversight of Metro’s troubled subway system will include surprise inspections, specified deadlines for making safety fixes and the potential loss of funding if the transit agency fails to comply with mandates from its new watchers, according to details released this week by the Transportation Department.
Federal oversight is not expected to change the transit agency’s day-to-day operations, however, and Metro’s current management team will remain in place. But officials with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), who will oversee the subway system, say the public will see a more assertive response to incidents. Metro will be required to immediately inform the FTA of any significant crashes or problems, and the federal agency will determine what action must be taken.
“This is the strictest level of federal safety oversight,” said FTA acting administrator Therese W. McMillan. “Metro can no longer ignore safety orders from their oversight agency.”
The shift applies only to the transit agency’s rail operations.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the unprecedented effort earlier this month, making Metro the first U.S. subway system to be under direct federal oversight for safety. The move marks a more aggressive approach to fixing the safety failures that have plagued the nation’s second-busiest subway system since a fatal smoke incident in January killed one rider and injured scores more.
The FTA’s intervention also is an admission, both the FTA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have said, that the current oversight system for Metro through the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a state-based regulator that includes representatives from Maryland, the District and Virginia, is ineffective and could take years to replace.
FTA spokesman Nathan Robinson said that over the next several weeks, FTA officials will meet with Metro’s staff to explain the agency’s new role. FTA officials also will meet with members of the region’s congressional delegation to respond to questions that have been raised.
“FTA has the resources and the ability to do this job,” McMillan said. “This is not just going to the ER when someone gets sick. We’re talking about a full physical.”
She said that FTA inspectors will be on the ground throughout the system, ensuring that Metro is following through on its commitments.
But some wonder whether Foxx is taking the wisest approach for ensuring the safety of the thousands of people who depend on Metro daily.
Last month, the NTSB, which has launched 11 investigations of Metro over the past 33 years, issued its own recommendations for improving safety oversight.
In an 11-page letter to Foxx, NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said Metro should be reclassified as a commuter rail operation, a move that would shift oversight responsibilities to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an agency within the DOT that has more experience, a larger staff and the ability to levy fines and hold individuals responsible for safety violations. The change also would make Metro subject to stricter safety regulations.
By contrast, Hart noted that the FTA only recently was given authority to regulate the safety of subway, bus and light-rail systems, and is still building its safety oversight operation.
Foxx argued that leaving the FTA in charge will allow federal regulators to act more quickly and will yield more immediate results.
“[T]he NTSB recommendation shifts oversight from one agency to another one, creating confusion and a greater risk of slowing down improvements,” Foxx wrote in his response to the NTSB. “More practically, [Metro] does not have an understanding or familiarity with FRA regulations and separating their rail and bus operations into different regulatory structures would confuse and likely delay safety improvements.”
An NTSB spokesman said the agency looks forward to continuing the conversation.
“We are encouraged that Secretary Foxx also recognizes the urgency of correcting the safety issues at [Metro],” said NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson in an e-mail. “The NTSB will evaluate the proposed actions of the Secretary to see if they meet the intent of our recommendations. We look forward to working with Secretary Foxx and his team in creating a new and effective safety structure for [Metro].”
Some experts, however, say that without the ability to levy fines or hold individuals accountable for safety lapses, the FTA cannot be an effective regulator.
“All [Congress] has done is allow [FTA] to make recommendations to improve safety,” said Lawrence Mann, a D.C.-based attorney and lead author of the 1970 Federal Railroad Safety Act. “It’s a lot like kissing your mother-in-law.”
The intent of the law, which has been updated several times, was to establish and enforce regulations related to the safety of heavy rail systems, such as Amtrak, and private transportation companies such as CSX. It sets standards for issues including the spacing between the rails and how long workers can remain on duty.
The FTA’s Robinson said that the agency can be an effective regulator, even without those tools.
“Fines levied on public transit agencies aren’t impacting shareholder profits in order to compel different behavior,” he said. “Fines that would end up being paid by transit agencies to the FTA with FTA grant money would be functionally the same as withholding grant funds.”
James E. Hall, who as NTSB chairman in the 1990s and early 2000s pushed for more federal oversight of systems such as Metro, said he was heartened to see Foxx stepping in.
“I am pleased to see some kind of action is being taken, but I certainly would have preferred that some action be taken by local and state officials [toward making Metro safer],” Hall said. “They seem to be reflecting the gridlock in Congress. They need to act to put together a strong independent safety oversight of the system.”
Others say it is too early to know which plan is best.
The FRA’s oversight system was created more than 70 years ago, at a time when the push was for more — not less — government intervention, said Emil Frankel, a former assistant secretary for transportation policy at the Transportation Department during the George W. Bush administration.
“FTA has only recently been given oversight authority,” said Frankel, who is interim president of the nonpartisan Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation. “It should be allowed to fashion the nature of its oversight.”
Lost in the debate about oversight, Frankel said, is something more important for ensuring that Metro is a safe system: the need for the transit agency to have a strong chief executive who can be held accountable. Metro has been under interim leadership since January, when Richard Sarles retired. Efforts to hire a new general manager have been thwarted by infighting on the agency’s governing board, though members have said they hope to hire a new top executive next month. The transit agency’s chief safety officer also recently resigned.
“Oversight is just oversight,” Frankel said. “It looks at the overall operation most often, after the fact. The fact of the matter is the most important thing that the three jurisdictions and the board can do is come together and reach a consensus on choosing a new leader.”
The FTA’s McMillan echoed that sentiment.
“It has been too long and they have got to get a general manager in place,” she said. “This is another critical piece.”