Congress has given a final okay for the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to launch an independent regulatory body to oversee safety on the Washington Metro.
Now, the Metro Safety Commission resolution will head to the desk of President Trump.
The Senate voted Thursday to approve the measure by unanimous consent before leaving for August recess — pending one more minor fix from the House of Representatives, which was made in the House’s pro forma session on Friday afternoon.
The resolution to launch the Metro Safety Commission had already garnered approval from the Senate once before, last May — but when the measure was sent to the House, lawmakers slightly tweaked some of the wording, requiring that the resolution undergo one more vote on the Senate side.
The official congressional seal of approval is one of the last hurdles in the drawn-out legislative process that started more than two years ago to codify a new organization that would help prevent safety crises on Metro like the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke disaster.
“Establishing a Metro Safety Commission is an important step to ensure that WMATA has strong oversight and abides by the toughest safety standards,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in a statement Friday. “The Commission’s new safety enforcement tools will further bolster Paul Wiedefeld and his team as they dig Metro out from under years of dysfunction.”
“I also hope that enactment of this resolution will allow for FTA [the Federal Transit Administration] to expediently restore the transit funding it is currently withholding from Virginia,” Kaine added, “so that we can continue working to address broader efforts to improve Metro service across D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.”
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), too, reiterated in a statement Friday that he wants to see the FTA financial penalties lifted.
“Now that Congress has passed the legislation, I urge the jurisdictions to quickly stand-up the infrastructure to get the Commission certified and take back from the Federal Transportation Administration the responsibility for oversight of WMATA’s safety operations,” Cardin said.
“And I expect that U.S. Transportation Secretary Chao and the Federal Transportation Administration will lift the financial penalties which have made it more difficult for WMATA and our region’s other transit systems to operate.”
The federally-mandated safety body is expected to conduct inspections on Metro, investigate safety concerns and ensure that the transit agency comports with national regulations — part of an effort to improve safety and reliability on the subway system. But establishing the safety agency has been a painfully slow process: To get it up-and-running, the measure had to be officially approved by state legislatures in Maryland and Virginia, by the D.C. Council and by Congress.
In the meantime, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao continues to penalize the region for failing to enact the safety body, despite the fact that the holdup in recent months took place in Congress, not in the jurisdictions. Last February, Chao decided to temporarily withhold millions of dollars in transit funds to the three jurisdictions, pointing out that Maryland, D.C. and Virginia would receive that money once the Metro Safety Commission is launched and working with official certification from the Federal Transit Administration.
But even if Trump gives his official thumbs-up to the Metro Safety Commission — the final hurdle before the Metro oversight body can become legal — it remains unclear whether those financial penalties will be lifted anytime soon. Local leaders are scrambling to make the oversight body a reality, which requires hiring staff, finding office space and providing extensive documentation to the FTA.
Regional officials are hoping to have a real-life Metro Safety Commission up and running by the end of this year.
“Quite frankly, the passing of legislation doesn’t do a whole lot unless you have this set up,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said last month. “The real substance is getting this entity up and running.”