More than three years after Metro’s history of dangerous calamities prompted U.S. officials to take control of subway safety oversight, the Federal Transit Administration said Monday that it is ready to return that responsibility to local authorities and free up nearly $50 million in transportation funds that had been withheld from the Washington region.
The FTA’s announcement is a watershed event for Metro in the long effort to reinvent how the rail system’s safety is monitored. The FTA said it is finally satisfied that the year-old Metrorail Safety Commission — made up of safety experts appointed by the District, Maryland and Virginia — is qualified to oversee the safety of one of the nation’s busiest subways.
Since February 2017, the federal government had been withholding millions of dollars in transportation money from Virginia, Maryland and the District because the jurisdictions missed a deadline to create the independent safety board. After the panel was formed last year, the FTA continued withholding funds while the safety commission underwent a certification process.
“The FTA is certifying the [board] to perform the direct safety oversight” of Metrorail, the FTA’s executive director, Matthew J. Welbes, announced Monday. The transfer of safety oversight to local control, effective Tuesday, means that about $48.5 million in withheld federal funds is “now available to transit agencies across the three jurisdictions to invest in public transportation.”
The safety board’s chairman, Christopher A. Hart, applauded the announcement, saying in a statement that Washington-area public officials “have all worked tirelessly to establish this organization and ensure robust, independent oversight of Metrorail. With today’s blessing by the FTA, our critical work can now begin.”
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) praised the FTA’s move as “an exciting milestone moment.”
“It’s not every day, or decade, that the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia come together to create a new regional organization with such significant responsibilities,” COG Executive Director Chuck Bean said in a statement. “After so much hard-fought, forward progress on this regional priority, it is extremely satisfying that we reached the end zone.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) also welcomed the decision. But he continued to criticize federal officials for withholding transportation funds while the safety board was being created. He said the FTA had sought “to punish our region” for not setting up the commission “according to an arbitrary timeline set by the agency.”
“Nothing better demonstrates the absurdity of the FTA’s overly punitive approach,” Connolly said, “than the fact that it will now release $48.5 million in grant funding while the [board] is getting certified one month ahead of the statutory deadline for doing so.”
The creation of the Metrorail Safety Commission, comprising six transportation safety experts, was spurred by a deadly incident over four years ago.
On Jan. 12, 2015, an electrical malfunction on tracks near the L’Enfant Plaza station generated a mass of smoke, engulfing a six-car Yellow Line train that was stalled in a tunnel. About 250 riders waited more than 30 minutes for rescuers to arrive, officials said, and scores of them were sickened as they choked on noxious fumes. One rider, Carol I. Glover, 61, of Alexandria, died of respiratory failure.
The catastrophe focused public attention on Metro’s long history of subway safety problems, partly attributable to the toothlessness of the transit system’s existing safety-watchdog organization, known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee.
Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx ordered the FTA to step in and take on the tasks of daily, on-the-ground inspections and safety audits — the first time such a drastic action was taken for any public transit agency in the country. That arrangement lasted significantly longer than many people, including FTA officials, expected. Before 2015, the FTA had almost no experience with safety inspections of that kind.
In FTA parlance, the newly certified Metrorail Safety Commission is considered a “state safety oversight agency.” In Monday’s announcement, federal officials noted that “while FTA will no longer have direct day-to-day safety oversight responsibility for Metrorail, it maintains its general safety authority for all” state safety oversight agencies.
The Metrorail Safety Commission was formed early last year and, in September, it submitted a certification application to the FTA. The certification process required the commission’s staff to undergo comprehensive training in “inspections, investigations, corrective action plans, emergency management” and other aspects of monitoring subway safety, the FTA said.
The commission’s executive director, David L. Mayer, has described the board as a vastly improved version of its predecessor. He said the board will have better funding and technical expertise and greater legal authority to penalize Metro for failing to meet safety standards.
“We recognize the tremendous work the FTA has done for the past three years overseeing Metro,” Mayer said in a statement Monday, “and we look forward to taking on the baton and building on their achievements as we work . . . to make Metro an even safer system.”