A new Metro safety oversight commission is a step closer to happening as the Virginia and Maryland legislatures convene this week.
Officials in both states had been concerned that the legislation would be delayed this year, but the plan got a boost after Virginia obtained a concession that the new commission’s board would have to give unanimous consent before ordering any shutdown of the transit system, legislators and others said.
The D.C. Council passed a bill last month creating the commission. Maryland and Virginia must approve identical versions of the legislation to establish the commission, which will have more authority over Metro safety than its widely criticized predecessor, the Tri-State Oversight Committee.
The commission will not be set up in time to meet a Feb. 9 deadline set by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. By failing to meet the deadline, the three risk losing millions in federal transit funds.
But they hope to buy more time with the incoming administration by showing they are making clear progress toward creating the commission.
Establishing the safety body would mark a significant step forward for Metro since the Federal Transit Administration took over safety oversight for the rail system more than a year ago.
Foxx took the unprecedented step of transferring 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 Tri-State Oversight Committee was woefully inadequate for the job.
Officials said the Virginia and Maryland legislatures, whose annual sessions begin Wednesday, are likely to approve the commission, both to avoid federal financial penalties and to end the embarrassment of relying on the FTA.
“This piece of legislation should not be a heavy lift for the three jurisdictions,” said Maryland state Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), who co-chairs a joint committee on federal relations at the State House in Annapolis.
Concern lingers that conservative critics of Metro in the Virginia House of Delegates may try to attach conditions to the safety commission bill, such as adding requirements to overhaul the Metro board or weaken union protections.
But the bill’s sponsor in the Virginia House, Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax), has sought to minimize that risk by providing conservatives with political cover. He has filed a separate, nonbinding resolution that would formally urge the governor to open talks on rewriting Metro’s founding document to change its governance and labor practices.
By giving conservatives a separate means of pressing Metro to adopt reforms, LeMunyon’s resolution should help ensure that the safety commission legislation is approved, according to lawmakers from both parties.
“I view the issues as separate,” LeMunyon said. He said it would be “fruitless” and “a non-starter” for any Metro-related legislation to change the language of the safety commission bill.
The three jurisdictions reached tentative agreement in May on the draft legislation, but two disputes arose that required further work.
Most recently, some Virginia legislators objected to a provision that decisions were to be made by a majority of commissioners — meaning that the jurisdictions would not have effective veto power, as they do on the Metro board.
The new commission will have six voting members and three alternates, evenly divided among the three jurisdictions.
The bill was revised to require unanimous consent of the voting members for any decision to shut down or restrict service on all or part of the system.
“The compromise that’s been struck recognizes that you did not want to have two jurisdictions voting to shut down part of the system when the third jurisdiction did not agree,” said Virginia Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who was outspoken in his desire for a jurisdictional veto, remained skeptical, but said he might have to support the bill anyway to avoid facing the federal financial penalties.
“I kind of feel I’m being bribed into voting for it,” Albo said.
Earlier changes were made in the draft to address objections that the commission could shield much of its work and findings from the public. It was agreed that the commission would be subject to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and other federal transparency policies.
The new panel was proposed after years of frustration with the tri-state committee, which had virtually no enforcement authority. By contrast, the commission will be empowered to adopt and enforce Metro safety rules, conduct inspections, order “corrective action plans,” impose fines for noncompliance, issue subpoenas and compel the agency to spend more money on safety-critical issues.
LeMunyon’s resolution for rewriting the Metro Compact reflects growing interest in the region in radically restructuring Metro. The 50-year-old compact has long drawn criticism for providing an unwieldy governing structure and inadequate funding.
The resolution urges the Virginia governor to open talks with the Maryland governor and District mayor to rewrite the compact to improve the governance, financing and operation of Metro.
The resolution notes that the Federal City Council, a District-based organization of business and civic leaders, recently proposed rewriting the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Compact of 1966 as a way to address Metro’s chronic problems with safety, reliability and financial management.
It specifically urges the jurisdictions look at changing the structure of Metro’s board of directors, such as by requiring that all members have “expertise and experience gained outside of government service in the operation of large transportation enterprises.”
In its most controversial sections, the resolution calls for changing labor policies, such as eliminating the requirement that contract disputes be settled by outside arbitration.
It also calls for adoption of a “right to work” provision, so that no Metro employee would be required to belong to a union as a condition of employment.
And it says that the employee pension plan, which has an unfunded liability of more than $2.5 billion, should be converted to a potentially less-costly defined contribution plan.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said his boss, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), is unlikely to support the union-related provisions in the resolution.
In general, however, the McAuliffe administration is open to discussing changes in the Metro Compact, Layne said. He has said previously that there is “no doubt” that Metro governance needs reform.
“We’re happy to talk with [LeMunyon] about a resolution looking at governance issues, [but] we’re not prepared to spell out specifically” what the changes should be, Layne said.