Transit is growing in popularity nationwide, but Metro, once an example of sound regional transportation planning, is falling behind. After numerous safety lapses and increasingly unreliable service, many of the region’s travelers are voting with their feet and leaving their Metro passes at home. This proud system must be revived from within by a renewed and unrelenting focus on safety.
The National Transportation Safety Board recently issued an urgent recommendation, pointing out that the Tri-State Oversight Committee is ineffective and immediate changes are needed. To address these chronic problems, the NTSB recommended that the Transportation Department seek new powers from Congress to put the Federal Railroad Administration in charge until significant efforts are undertaken by area leaders to build up the Tri-State Oversight Committee. I have no beef with the NTSB; we all want Metro fixed — and fast. That’s why I exercised existing Federal Transit Administration authority to ensure that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority makes changes to protect its riders and workers.
Are these steps more of the same or playing games? No. Metro can forget any new rail-expansion projects until it meets our safety standards. We may also require periodic closures of some Metro facilities to ensure safety measures are implemented.
The FTA authorities being invoked to address Metro’s safety problems are new. After the 2009 Metro crash near Fort Totten that claimed nine lives and dangerous incidents in Chicago, Boston and elsewhere, Congress in 2012 gave the FTA the safety oversight authority it long had sought. The FTA could exercise this authority by funding and directing safety authorities in each state. At Metro, that meant working through the Tri-State Oversight Committee, a joint agency operated by Maryland, Virginia and the District. Continued safety problems at Metro have demonstrated that the committee lacks the resources, technical capacity and enforcement authority to provide the oversight Metro needs.
So, this month, at my direction, the FTA took the unprecedented step of assuming the Tri-State Oversight Committee’s safety oversight role for Metro.
Effective immediately, the FTA will conduct inspections, investigations, audits, examinations and testing of Metro’s equipment, facilities and operations. Safety failures we find must be corrected. There will be no new projects until Metro completes its punch list. This direct oversight will also focus on the 78 actions the FTA required Metro to complete as a result of the most comprehensive federal safety review conducted on a rail transit agency. The FTA will directly supervise Metro’s progress. The FTA has a significant enforcement tool through controlling Metro’s federal grants and will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements.
Never before has the federal government taken on direct oversight of a public transit system. The FTA has the authority to make Metro take action. The FTA is familiar with the system, has carefully assessed it and has my full support. But while we act to steer Metro into a new era of safety, Metro and state and local leaders will have to govern and prove that they can successfully execute their charge to provide safe, reliable service.
Ultimately, Metro’s problems require strong, swift and decisive action at the state and local levels to support and reinforce what the FTA will do.
While the FTA will oversee Metro’s safety activities, Metro must step up maintenance and operations, improve service and earn back the confidence of riders and workers.
Metro’s board appears to be close to announcing a candidate to fill the position of general manager, and that will help. The lengthy leadership void at the top contributed to the problem, but filling it alone won’t solve the agency’s problems.
Virginia, Maryland and the District must step up. Each jurisdiction must enact legislation establishing a new, more effective oversight body. The law requires it, and the safety of Metro demands it. I recently sent letters to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), urging them to act swiftly. The FTA will continue its emergency oversight for now, but we fully expect the region to put an effective safety oversight system in place without delay.
At the Transportation Department, safety is our primary mission and our transit partners must be accountable to passengers and workers. We are prepared to step in to protect transit users and employees when necessary, but ultimately Metro and state and local officials must pull together and do what is necessary to make Metro a safe, reliable and desirable option for travelers.
The writer is U.S. transportation secretary.
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