The House of Representatives voted Monday to approve the launch of a new safety commission to oversee the Washington Metro — one of the last legal steps necessary for the regulatory agency to become an official agency.
“We in the region have worked together on these issues. And now, with congressional approval … we will be able to begin the process of improving Metro,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), speaking on the House floor shortly before the bill was passed in a 399-5 vote.
But there are still a couple of hurdles the resolution needs to clear: It must go back to the Senate for a second round of approval (because of changes made in the House version), and then it will head to the desk of President Trump for his signature.
And even though the nascent Metro Safety Commission is expected to soon receive the official thumbs-up from all the required legislative bodies, there’s still more that must be done before the new agency receives formal approval from the Federal Transit Administration.
A looming question remains: Once the commission gets the formal okay from Congress and the president, will Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao consider ending temporary financial penalties against the Washington region that were put in place this year?
For the past five months, the federal government has been withholding millions of dollars for transit-related projects from the District, Maryland and Virginia — a punishment for failing to launch the Metro Safety Commission in time for the Feb. 9, 2016, deadline.
The federally mandated safety organization is tasked with inspecting and monitoring safety issues at Metro. The new agency is supposed to be a replacement for the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a safety body that was deemed ineffectual and toothless after several deadly incidents on the tracks.
But to get the Metro Safety Commission up and running, identical legislation needed to be passed by the D.C. Council, state legislatures in Maryland and Virginia, and both houses of Congress. At the time of the Feb. 9 deadline, only the District had enacted its bill.
Chao, less than one month into her appointment as head of the Transportation Department, acted swiftly. She opted to penalize the region by temporarily withholding 5 percent of statewide transit funds designated for all three jurisdictions. Once the Metro Safety Commission receives legal approval from all requisite legislatures — and once the commission is up and running, and receives certification from the Federal Transit Administration — the jurisdictions would get their money back, Chao explained in a letter.
Since then, Virginia and Maryland have passed their versions of the bill. The Senate gave its official stamp of approval in May. And on Monday, the House voted unanimously to write the Metro Safety Commission into law. Because of minor differences between the House and Senate versions, the resolution is headed back to the Senate for one more approval, and then to Trump’s desk.
Still, there’s no guarantee that the legislation’s passage will push Chao and the Federal Transit Administration to back off their financial penalty. They still need to certify the Metro Safety Commission, a process that involves vetting the staff hired to run the agency, and conducting a “transitional handoff period” when incoming safety inspectors work alongside FTA officials who have been monitoring Metro for the past year and a half.
That process has already started: Chris Smith, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said Monday that all three jurisdictions are in the process of recruiting commissioners, an executive director and staff to be hired once the commission gets full approval.
“We’re waiting for congressional action, but the states are continuing to expedite the process,” Smith said.
When asked several weeks ago about the progress of the Metro Safety Commission — and whether the Federal Transit Administration would be willing to lift the financial penalties once a resolution is passed by Congress — a spokesman for the federal agency pointed to language included in their initial declaration in February about the process of earning back the withheld funds.
“As stated in the February 2017 news release: ‘The funds will be withheld until the jurisdictions pass identical legislation and meet related requirements in order for FTA to certify’ ” the Metro Safety Commission, the spokesman wrote, adding the underline for emphasis. The official also highlighted the “list of key actions” that must be taken before the commission can be certified.
The continued financial penalty has been a cause of concern for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Earlier this month, two sets of federal lawmakers wrote letters to Chao, requesting that she give the region its withheld money.
“The decision to withhold the funds … was crude, punitive, and arbitrary, and the process that led to the decision was deeply flawed,” wrote 11 Democratic members of Congress, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), in one of the letters to Chao.
“We will not accept further harm inflicted on our region at a time when safety and maintenance investments are so desperately needed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and our region’s other transit systems,” the lawmakers wrote.
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.