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DC Metro oversight amendment added to House highway bill

DC Metro oversight amendment added to House highway bill
© file photo

An amendment to give the federal government greater authority to regulate the Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway system has been added to a $325 billion highway bill that is being considered by the House on Thursday. 

The amendment, which was added to a manager's amendment for the House highway bill, gives the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) greater legal authority to take over oversight of the capital area subway system for the first time in either agency's history.

The amendment was sponsored by Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and is known as the Protect Riders of Metrorail Public Transportation (PROMPT) Act of 2015.  

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The lawmakers said the measure would boost safety for riders on the D.C. Metro system, which is the nation's second-busiest subway. 

“Because the National Transportation Safety Board has flagged Metrorail safety oversight as an issue requiring immediate attention, we have worked to see that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) assume immediate control of WMATA safety oversight responsibilities using its administrative authority,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a statement.

"Our last surface transportation bill gave states safety oversight responsibility for the first time following the tragic 2009 Metro accident that took the lives of nine D.C.-area residents," Norton continued. "However, the bill also allows the federal government to step in." 

The DOT has said it is open to taking over oversight of the Metrorail system. The D.C. Metro system has faced heavy scrutiny after a series of safety lapses that prompted calls for a federal intervention into regulation of the capital-area transit agency.  

The transportation department said it would be able to conduct safety inspections for the D.C. Metro system under powers that were granted to the agency in the 2012 transportation funding bill. 

Norton said Thursday the increase in federal oversight of the D.C. Metro system is long overdue. 

"Because neither the states nor the federal government has had safety oversight of Metrorail before, only two states have set up their own safety oversight apparatuses. WMATA presents unique challenges because it is the only Metrorail that covers three jurisdictions," she said. "Our bill, by reinforcing the needed administrative action, sends a clear message to WMATA to increase its own attention to safety, and to riders that their safety has been our priority at the national level.”

Metro has been under fire for most of the year following the death of a passenger on a smoke-filled train in January and a series of other safety lapses.

The proposal to increase federal oversight of Metro was set in motion in September when the National Transportation Safety Board issued an "urgent" recommendation to classify the Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway system as a commuter railroad to expand federal oversight of the capital transit agency under the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) powers. 

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has said he agrees that Metro regulation needs a drastic overhaul, but he has said he supports a plan to allow the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to oversee Metro under the provisions of the 2012 transportation bill. 

"FTA has the capability to assert this authority and, at my direction, will do so immediately," Foxx wrote in a letter to NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart. "This increased oversight means that FTA will now directly enforce and investigate the safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail until the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia establish a fully functioning and capable SSOA." 

The capital-area subway system is currently overseen by a Tri-State Oversight Committee composed of officials from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The FTA has also had a limited role in overseeing Metro, but public transit has been seen as a local issue in most cases.

The NTSB's recommendation called for the Department of Transportation to identify the D.C. Metro system as a commuter railroad instead of a public transit system, which would have allowed the railroad administration to regulate the agency. 

The shift would have been a big departure for the FRA, which normally oversees Amtrak and other commuter railways.