Federal officials who have been tasked with overseeing safety at Metro for the past three years could soon turn control over to the new regional safety panel created for the job.
The new Metrorail Safety Commission board voted Monday to submit an application to the Federal Transit Administration requesting that it be allowed to assume responsibility from federal officials.
While there are several steps (and months) in the certification process, commission officials are eager to end Metro’s status as the only major transit system in the country whose safety problems were deemed so significant that the federal government stepped in to provide oversight.
“They’re as anxious to get rid of it as we are to take it,” commission Vice Chairman Mark Rosenker said.
The safety commission is expected to submit its application to the FTA by Sept. 30. After that, the detailed document will be made available to the public.
The commission is composed of transportation safety experts appointed by the District, Maryland and Virginia, and its six-person board held its inaugural meeting in March.
But the genesis of the new agency goes back much further — to at least January 2015 and the calamitous L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, which resulted in the death of one Metro rider and the hospitalization of scores of others.
Federal investigators determined that at least some of Metro’s safety problems could be attributed to the toothlessness of its existing watchdog organization. So, in the fall of 2015, 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 has lasted significantly longer than many people — including those at the FTA — expected. Even now, the federal government releases regular reports detailing the results of the dozens of inspections it performs each month. Those inspections tabulate, with meticulous detail, all the problems, substandard equipment and defects that inspectors spot in the tunnels, at the stations, and in the rail yards and equipment shops.
It’s a significant undertaking for a federal agency that, before 2015, had almost no experience with these kinds of inspections.
Commission Executive Director David Mayer insisted that the new safety panel will ultimately be much more powerful and effective than its predecessor, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, citing its sizable funding from the region’s taxpayers, the technical expertise of its staff, and its new legal authority to penalize and fine Metro for failing to meet safety standards.
“We’re simply different from anything that’s come before,” Mayer said after Monday’s meeting.
Said Rosenker in comparing the new commission with the “toothless” old panel: “We do have teeth. We just hope we don’t have to use them.”
Still, Rosenker said, it’s a complicated process before the commission has the official go-ahead to function independently.
“The certification process is more than taking a package of paper and submitting it to the FTA,” he said.
Last week, the FTA released a memo outlining the steps that will come after it receives the commission’s application. There is a lengthy “transition period” that will include training in “inspections, investigations, corrective action plans, emergency management, safety and security certifications, and triennial audits.”
During that process, Metrorail Safety Commission staff members will shadow federal inspectors to learn the ins and outs of their jobs. Then, those same inspectors will shadow commission staff, to ensure that they’re capable of fulfilling all the inspection and auditing responsibilities.
The commission must earn certification from the FTA by April 15, or it risks the federal government withholding further money from Metro and other transit agencies in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
Meanwhile, there are other things to be determined, such as the organization’s logo. The commission hired a design firm to come up with mock-ups, but the suggestions “really didn’t have an appropriate look and feel for a safety agency,” Mayer said.
So, he said, they’re going back to the drawing board.