Transparency advocates, the public — and some elected officials– had criticized language in the original bill. They said it would be unwise to allow the panel to conduct much of its work in secret when a lack of transparency was one of the biggest problems with Metro and its previous oversight agency — the failed Tri-State Oversight Committee.
The reworked bill was introduced to the D.C. Council on Tuesday at a hearing headed by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
“Metro’s biggest problem is it’s secret. They love to be secret at Metro,” said Evans, who is also chairman of Metro’s board. “I’m chairman of the board and half the time I can’t find out what is going on over there.”
But District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo, whose agency helped prepare the proposal, assured the council that the committee’s findings would not be withheld from the public. Draft legislation introduced in May would have allowed the panel to “adopt its own policies” based on a federal statute.
“Let me assure you that the commission will operate in an open and transparent fashion,” said Dormsjo, who also is a Metro board member. “The new version explicitly states…that the commission shall adopt the federal Freedom of Information Act and its rules for open meeting and Freedom of Information policy. This removes the statement that the commission board may adopt a different policy, which some have contended might lead to a less restrictive policy.”
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has set a deadline of February 2017 for the commission’s establishment, which is required under a 2012 federal transportation spending bill.
The new oversight commission would replace the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which was deemed toothless and ineffective in its supervision of Metro. Unlike TOC, Dormsjo said the new body would have the power to levy fines, bring legal action and direct safety employees to be dismissed.
The Federal Transit Administration assumed safety oversight of the transit agency in October, following a series of safety lapses, including the January 2015 smoke calamity at L’Enfant Plaza that resulted in the death of 61-year-old Carol Glover and sickened more than 80 passengers.
But the FTA oversight was meant to last only until the jurisdictions could create a new oversight body to replace TOC. Foxx ordered the three jurisdictions to establish a new committee by early next year or risk losing millions in federal funding.
“We will be the first jurisdiction to consider this matter and get it passed and set an example for both Maryland and Virginia,” Evans told the council Tuesday.
The three must pass identical legislation to establish the commission, comprised of two voting members and one alternate from each jurisdiction. It would be funded through a combination of federal grant money and annual contributions from each of the jurisdictions.
Dormsjo said the panel would cost two to three times what TOC did, with a budget of $3 million to $6 million, compared to TOC’s $2 million. The increased costs, he said, result from the “order of magnitude” of such an undertaking, and the level of effort required of staff and consulting experts.
Board members would be required to have a transportation, transit safety, public finance or relevant engineering background. They would be appointed to four-year terms with an option for reappointment, but would not be allowed to simultaneously hold public office.
Evans was wary that such a board might operate like Metro’s unwieldy board of directors, which consists of voting members and alternates who have dual-responsibilities to Metro and the jurisdictions they serve.
Dormsjo reassured him that members would take an oath to the commission itself.
Officials also expressed concern about whether the new committee could be established by the February 2017 deadline. The Maryland and Virginia legislatures don’t reconvene until January.
“I do think it’s important to note that the legislative calendars for Maryland and Virginia make it very difficult to adopt the legislation and then stand up the commission under the timeframe that has been specified by USDOT,” Dormsjo said. “Hopefully the FTA will not withdraw their oversight role come February of 2017 and leave the riders and the agency in the lurch.”
As the Washington region works to establish its new safety oversight panel, federal officials moved to remind other states that they too are required to toughen the regulatory authority of their transit safety commissions. Foxx sent letters this week to leaders of 28 states — along with the District — reminding them that they are responsible for establishing transit safety organizations that are “legally and financially independent of the transit systems they oversee.”
“Though Metro’s new safety oversight agency must be put in place by February of 2017, other transit agencies in the region and around the country are legally required to establish similar state safety agencies by April 2019 to regulate subway, heavy-rail, light-rail, trolley, and streetcar systems,” Foxx wrote in a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. “While I have made it clear, in separate correspondence, that I expect the District of Columbia to work with your partner jurisdictions to establish a federally compliant [state safety oversight] agency to oversee the rail operations of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority by February 9, 2017. You also are responsible for establishing compliant safety oversight for other rail fixed guideway public transportation systems under your purview.”
Similar letters were sent to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Martine Powers contributed to this report.