The Federal Transit Administration has given Virginia, Maryland and the District a year to create a safety oversight body for Metro or risk losing millions in federal transportation funding.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in a letter Monday to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that he was frustrated to learn that the jurisdictions would not be pursuing legislation this year to establish a federally compliant safety oversight agency to oversee Metro’s rail operations.
Late last year, Foxx transferred safety oversight of Metro’s rail operations to the FTA with the understanding that it would be temporary — until the three jurisdictions could develop a compact to create an oversight agency. The move was made after federal officials determined that the agency charged with the task, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), was woefully inadequate for the job.
But Foxx said federal officials recently learned from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that the jurisdictions “do not expect to pursue final legislative action in 2016” to establish a safety oversight agency.
“This news was unexpected and disappointing,” Foxx wrote in the letter.
Unless the jurisdictions reverse course within a year, Foxx said they may lose up to 5 percent of a funding program through which the region received $142.6 million last year. Based on the fiscal 2015 apportionment, the region could lose up to $7.1 million.
Some of the region’s leaders said Monday that they are taking steps to move Metro to a culture of safety but that they, too, are frustrated with the situation — and with the U.S. Transportation Department for pointing the finger at the District, Maryland and Virginia when the federal government also has a seat at the table to help solve Metro’s problems.
“While the nation awaits the FTA’s rules on state safety oversight entities, [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] has an oversight structure in their board of directors where the federal government can actually be helpful,” Bowser spokesman Michael Czin said. “Unfortunately, the federal government’s appointees, including the previous chairman, were obstacles to reform in 2015.”
Metro’s governing board includes members representing all three jurisdictions, plus the federal government.
In a briefing last week, Foxx signaled that he may consider appointing new federal representatives to the board. Under legislation passed last year, his agency has the authority to make those appointments, which were previously made by the General Services Administration.
“The District has appointed board members that prioritize safety, reliability and expanded capacity,” Czin said. “We hope our federal partners follow suit and hold their appointees accountable for those shared goals.”
However, while the Metro board determines agency policy and provides oversight for funding and operations, it is up to the District, Maryland and Virginia to create the safety oversight agency.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said in a statement that the state is committed to setting up the agency as soon as possible and that significant progress has been made over the past year. He said the jurisdictions have been “transparent and cooperative” with the FTA.
“It’s unfortunate that the U.S Department of Transportation seems unwilling to acknowledge the significant legal and statutory challenges associated with the formation of the [Metro Safety Commission],” Rahn said.
Brian Coy, a spokesman for McAuliffe, said in an email, “The governor agrees that Virginia, Maryland and D.C. must take every action necessary to keep Metro riders safe. He plans to work with Governor Hogan and Mayor Bowser as well as the new Metro GM over this year to develop a compact that can be considered by the legislature in 2017. Staffs from all three jurisdictions have been meeting and working and will continue to move forward on a plan to make Metro safer and more responsive to the needs of customers and taxpayers.”
The Metro Safety Commission, first proposed by regional leaders in 2010, would replace the Tri-State Oversight Committee and have a larger staff and more authority to monitor safety issues.
The FTA took over responsibility for safety oversight of Metro in October, making it the first U.S. subway system to be under such oversight. That shift followed the 2015 smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza, which killed one person and sickened scores of others.
In its new role, the FTA is investigating several safety lapses, including an incident last week in which a train ran a red-light signal and ended up facing another train head-on. The trains did not collide and no one was injured, but a train operator and rail operations controller have been removed from duty pending an investigation.
In taking responsibility for safety oversight of the nation’s second-busiest subway system, FTA officials acknowledged that previous efforts to hold Metro accountable for safety lapses through TOC had largely failed.
In an October letter to Metro leadership, the acting FTA administrator, Therese McMillan, said that “it is no longer business as usual.”
“This is the strictest level of federal safety oversight ever placed on a rail transit agency,” McMillan said. She also sent a letter Monday, accompanying Foxx’s.
Despite that warning, Foxx said in Monday’s letter that he was disturbed by a recent announcement that they did “not expect to pursue” the creation of the oversight body.
TOC is an independent body with representatives from the District, Maryland and Virginia focused on daily safety oversight of Metro. Formed in 1997, it is one of a number of state safety organizations tasked with such duties. But its effectiveness at holding Metro accountable and ensuring that the transit agency is accurately reporting incidents has been questioned in previous years.
Auditors said the TOC must be more aggressive in ensuring that the transit authority is reporting accidents and safety issues in its rail system. But officials also said they recognize that TOC’s effectiveness is hampered by a structure that requires approval from multiple jurisdictions before action can be taken.
In some cases, TOC officials are limited in their ability to monitor safety because the law is not clear on whether they should have access to the data.
In his Monday letter, Foxx wrote: “The shortcomings of the current Tri-State Oversight Committee . . . are well documented and have led me to order the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to assume lead safety oversight of WMATA.”
And he referenced earlier conversations he has had with the region’s leaders about Metro. “During our meeting last July,” he wrote, “I emphasized the importance of the three jurisdictions working urgently to stand up [a new safety oversight panel] that meets the rigorous safety standards under current Federal law. Our expectation that the jurisdictions will address this matter this year has not changed.”
At a December meeting of the Transportation Planning Board for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, officials told the board that the transition to replace TOC is underway but it would take more than a year.
While the jurisdictions are working to agree on the structure, enforcement authority and governance of the new commission, they also need to go through a legislative process for approval. One challenge, they said, is that the Maryland legislature meets for 90 days, from January through March, and Virginia’s meets for 60 days, from January through February. The District, meanwhile, has a two-month recess in the summer, making it difficult to pass legislation this year.
The plan presented to the panel set a June 2017 target date for the new agency. Kanti Srikanth, COG’s transportation director, has been asking questions in an effort to ensure that the region complies with the U.S. demands as soon as possible.
“We want to make sure that this work is done as soon as possible, because Metro is very important to the region,” Srikanth said.
Lori Aratani and Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.