(Courtesy of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority/Courtesy of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority)

As the federal government withholds millions of dollars in transportation funding because regional officials missed a deadline to set up a Metro oversight commission, local leaders say they are working on the practical aspects of the new panel and hope to launch it by year’s end.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao held back 5 percent of a category of funding because D.C., Maryland and Virginia officials missed a Feb. 9 deadline to establish a commission to oversee the long-troubled transit system.

Five months later, legislation approving the commission has passed in the District, both states and both chambers of Congress, though the House version of the legislation still needs final Senate passage and President Trump’s signature.

“Quite frankly, the passing of legislation doesn’t do a whole lot unless you have this set up,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. “The real substance is getting this entity up and running.”

The Federal Transit Administration took on temporary safety supervision of the transit system in October 2015 and said it would penalize the three regional partners of Metro by holding back funds if the jurisdictions didn’t set up a strong commission as a safety watchdog.

Local jurisdictions have been steadily penalized for their perceived sluggishness ever since.

The safety commission would replace the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which was deemed toothless and ineffective after repeated safety failures, most notably the L’Enfant Plaza smoke calamity that killed one and sickened dozens more in January 2015.

With legislation passed, regional transportation leaders say the priority has shifted from establishing the broad framework of the commission to finding people to run it, office space and staffers.

Each jurisdiction must appoint two full-time commissioners and submit applications laying out the commission’s safety and investigative credentials and establishing its independence from Metro before the held-back money can be released, FTA officials say.

There also must be a handoff period when officials from the new oversight authority work alongside FTA officials to demonstrate they’re trained and ready to be the watchdog.

Maryland Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), co-chair of a work group of Annapolis legislators focused on Metro issues, said the state Transportation Department is in the process of vetting commissioner applicants.

Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said regional leaders aim to have a search firm to find an eventual executive director in late summer or early fall.

Each jurisdiction will have two full-time members, with one alternate to cover absences, on the commission, according to the legislation.

Korman said commissioners should have a rail engineering or safety background — ideally with experience on bodies such as the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Transit Administration or the Federal Railroad Administration.

Six to 12 staffers, who are still to be hired, will manage the office’s daily operations. Transportation leaders are looking for space in downtown Washington.

With regional officials saying they’re working as fast as possible to set up the commission, many local members of Congress are pressing to restore the funds now.

A total of $8.9 million had been withheld to date, congressional leaders said in late June. The figure was expected to hit $15 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Elected lawmakers from both parties have persistently argued that the February deadline for federal certification was impossible to meet. They note that an FTA “tool kit” that gave states guidance on how to achieve certification was not released until four days after the FTA had already penalized the Metro partners.

A June 30 letter to Chao from 11 Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly and Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner, all of Virginia, said “the decision to withhold the funds . . . was crude, punitive, and arbitrary.”

“The one-year timeline imposed on the jurisdictions to establish and certify the Metro Safety Commission (MSC) ignored the unique legislative calendars of the citizen legislatures in Maryland and Virginia as well as the time consuming, FTA-managed certification process for State Safety Oversight Program,” the letter said.

In a separate letter, six members of Congress, including Kaine, Warner and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), asked the FTA to restore at least some funds. They, too, argued that the requirement to have the program fully certified by February 2017 was “unreasonable,” given the need to appoint commissioners, hire staff and lease an office.

“We are therefore led to believe that FTA either set their requirements without providing fair consideration to the unique institutional challenges that exist within the jurisdictions, or the FTA set them with a deadline so unrealistic that failure was unavoidable,” they wrote.

The FTA said in an email last week that its stance has not changed.

The FTA also confirmed in the email that it has used $900,000 in Metro funding that was held back last year to hire and train three contractors to do federal oversight of Metro, with the goal of having that expertise transfer to the new commission.

The FTA had asked Maryland, Virginia and the District to hire the contractors, but that did not happen.