The U.S. Senate voted Tuesday to approve the creation of the Metro Safety Commission — one of the last legal steps necessary to establish a federally-mandated regional safety oversight agency to regulate the troubled transit agency.
The bill, which passed unanimously, came up for a vote more than three months after a deadline to get the oversight agency up and running. Now, the legislation must pass the House and be signed by President Trump.
“With heavy effort — and yes, continued foul-ups — things [at Metro] are slowly starting to improve,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement. “A critical piece of this effort is getting a tough new safety body in place, and the sooner we empower it, the sooner it can start enforcing the high safety standards missing for too long.”
The creation of a Metro Safety Commission has been in the works for at least two years, after federal transportation officials determined that the agency responsible for safety oversight was poorly staffed and ineffective.
Former transportation secretaryAnthony Foxx had set a Feb. 9 deadline for the District, Maryland and Virginia to establish a new safety body — and when the region failed to meet the deadline, his successor, Elaine Chao, took swift action in response to the what federal officials viewed as the region’s continued foot-dragging.
On Feb. 10, Chao announced that the Transportation Departmentwould withhold millions of dollars in funding to the region until the safety commission was in place.
Since then, governors in Virginia and Maryland have both signed the bill into law. The D.C. Council passed a version of the legislation in December, but some uncertainty remains about whether it must revote on a revised version to fix some minor wording glitches to conform with versions approved by Maryland and Virginia, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said.
Mendelson said the D.C. Council’s general counsel said the differences between the District’s version of the bill and those approved by Virginia and Maryland are minor and could be resolved in a routine, technical vote at the end of the year.
To ensure that will be adequate, however, Mendelson has asked D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine to look at whether the Council should vote earlier on a corrected version.
Although the federal bill has the official thumbs-up from the Senate, a House staffer said recently that the bill remains in that chamber’s Judiciary Committee and there are no immediate plans for the legislation to move to the House floor.
But even after the legislation passes Congress and is signed by the president, there is still more that must happen before the Federal Transit Administration is expected to release the funds it is withholding from the region. The jurisdictions must hire people to staff the agency, submit documents to the FTA offering details on the staff’s credentials and expertise, and conduct a “transitional handoff period” when new safety inspectors must work side by side with federal officials.
But regional officials say they’ve begun that process.
“We’re not going to wait for congressional action to start the process of hiring an executive director and staff, and appointing commissioners, and getting the operation fully mobilized,” Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said after Virginia’s bill was passed last month.