Under federal pressure to beef up safety monitoring of Metro, officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District have drafted legislation to create a regional oversight commission that would have “robust” power to investigate safety lapses but also would be allowed to withhold its findings from the public.
The proposal, unveiled Wednesday, comes at a time of heightened concern among officials and hundreds of thousands of Metro riders about track fires and other dangerous safety lapses. It also comes amid calls for more transparency from the transit agency and its leaders.
Representatives for the chief executives in the three jurisdictions did not respond to requests to explain the reason for the confidentiality provisions.
“In coming weeks, the jurisdictions will review the draft legislation, which is substantially complete, with their respective legislative bodies” and with federal and Metro officials, a statement issued by the District and the two states said.
After the bill’s language has been finalized, the officials said, the proposed “Interstate Compact to Create the Metrorail Safety Commission” will be introduced in the D.C. Council this summer and in the 2017 General Assembly sessions in Maryland and Virginia.
For years, Metro’s safety was monitored by a regional panel called the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which has almost no enforcement authority and is viewed as inadequate for the task. After Metro’s historically weak safety culture and decades of neglected maintenance gave rise to chronic, sometimes calamitous problems, the Federal Transit Administration last fall temporarily took over safety monitoring of the rail system, making it the first U.S. subway to be placed under such oversight.
The FTA will pass that responsibility to the new Metrorail Safety Commission — which is intended to be more powerful than the Tri-State Oversight Committee — once the commission has been approved by lawmakers in Virginia, Maryland and the District. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has threatened to withhold some federal funding for Metro unless the three jurisdictions move quickly to create the tougher safety panel.
Federal officials welcomed news of the draft legislation. “It is encouraging to see Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia have finally taken a positive step toward fulfilling their legal responsibility to provide safety oversight” of Metro, said Foxx’s spokeswoman, Namrata Kolachalam.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who is among a chorus of tough Metro critics in the Washington-area congressional delegations, said the secrecy provisions in the legislation gave him pause.
“At this point, transparency and accountability are very much in short supply with Metro,” Connolly said. “And I am concerned that whatever the intentions are here with the commission, it has the consequence of further eroding public confidence.”
He said he was pleased with other aspects of the bill, including the authority over Metro that the commission would have. “But, obviously, the devil’s going to be in the details of implementation,” he said. “They have powerful powers. But if we have the same sort of settling-in complacency that has afflicted Metro, well, then, this is all fascinating on the books, but it is not efficacious.”
Metro, in a statement, had no comment on the specifics of the legislation, saying only, “We are encouraged by the advancement” of the plan “and the support of all the jurisdictions.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), another Metro overseer in Congress, said: “It is no secret that Metro has a fundamental lack of safety culture. Metro’s previous safety body, the Tri-State Oversight Commission, failed miserably at fostering a safety culture.” She said, “It is time for Virginia, D.C., and Maryland to get moving on formulating this new commission so that consumer confidence can eventually be restored.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) applauded one another Wednesday in a joint statement announcing that they had agreed on a draft proposal for a six-member commission, with two representatives from each jurisdiction.
The new panel would have an array of powers, including the authority to adopt and enforce Metro safety rules, conduct inspections, order “corrective action plans,” impose citations and fines for noncompliance, issue subpoenas during safety-related investigations, and compel the transit agency to “prioritize spending on safety-critical items.”
The six members “shall be compensated for each day spent on the business of the Commission at a per diem rate of $200 per day, or as may be adjusted by appropriations approved by” the three jurisdictions, the legislation says
As for paying its bills, “Commission operations shall be funded, independently of [Metro], by the Signatory jurisdictions and, when available, by federal funds,” according to the draft. Maryland, Virginia and the District “shall agree on adequate long-term funding levels for the Commission and make equal contributions.”
With the beleaguered 40-year-old subway system under intense public scrutiny because of its persistent and occasionally hazardous performance problems, the confidentiality provisions in the 18-page legislation seem curious.
The commission “shall not be subject to the freedom of information and open meeting laws” of Virginia, Maryland or the District, the draft says. Instead, the panel would “adopt its own policies,” based on a federal public-information statute.
The legislation also says that the “Commission may withhold from public view the contents of any investigation report prepared, reviewed, or adopted” by the panel. Such reports would be given to the D.C. mayor and the Maryland and Virginia governors, “provided that the confidentiality of such records is maintained” by the three executives.
The creation of a safety panel to oversee Metro has been a point of contention between Foxx and elected leaders in the three jurisdictions, but McAuliffe said they have agreed on language to implement the commission.
In July, Foxx met privately with Bowser, Hogan and McAuliffe to encourage them to act swiftly to set up the commission. Achieving consensus on legislative language to accomplish that “is a big deal,” McAuliffe said Wednesday on WTOP-FM (103.5).
Appearing on the station’s “Ask the Governor” show, McAuliffe said Virginia would withhold funding for Metro if the agency fails to abide by safety protocols to be developed by top Virginia transportation officials as part of the oversight process.
The governor, on the air, signed an executive order directing state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne and Jennifer Mitchell, head of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, to work with Maryland and the District in creating the panel.
“We are very serious about this,” McAuliffe said, adding, “I am sick and tired of” Metro’s problems. “I want to make sure we have the safest system on the globe.”