Feds taking over DC Metro oversight

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is taking over oversight of the Washington, D.C. Metrorail subway system 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 Friday that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will conduct safety inspections for the D.C. Metro system under new powers that were granted to the agency in a 2012 transportation funding bill. 

In doing so, the agency rejected an earlier “urgent” recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 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 powers. 

{mosads}Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Friday that the plan to allow the FTA to oversee Metro would be more effective in bringing about change to the D.C. Metro system. 

“Through the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) legislation, Congress provided the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) with greatly enhanced, independent safety oversight authority, which augments the enhanced authority of State Safety Oversight Agencies (SSOA), and if necessary, allows FTA to assume those same authorities in the absence of an effective SSO agency,” Foxx wrote in a letter to NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart.

“FTA has the capability to assert this authority and, at my direction, will do so immediately,” he continued. “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 NTSB issued a plea for the Federal Railroad Administration to take over regulation of the beleaguered Metro system on Sept. 30, after a series of safety lapses on the agency’s trains this year.

Earlier Friday, the transportation department said it “does not believe that the NTSB recommendation is either the wisest or fastest way to bring about the necessary safety improvements at [the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authroity (WMATA)].”

“We take every recommendation of the NTSB seriously, including how quickly we can implement an urgent recommendation,” Foxx wrote. “In this case, we agree on the problem identified by NTSB, but believe there is a faster, more effective way to address it.” 

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.

The transportation department said Metro’s current local regulation “has been ineffective and we are prepared to take aggressive steps to ensure WMATA has appropriate safety oversight,” but the agency said the transit administration can effectively oversee Metro. 

“The FTA will maintain this higher level of oversight until a compliant and capable SSOA is established to replace the TOC,” Foxx wrote. “WMATA must also immediately hire a capable General Manager who is able to correct the course at the transit agency and aggressively manage the implementation of the Corrective Action Plan, which has been approved by the FTA.” 

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 Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has also had a limited role in overseeing Metro, but public transit has been seen as a local issue in most cases.

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 this year.

The NTSB said it made the recommendation for more federal oversight because it has investigated 11 incidents on the Metro in the last 33 years that involved a total of 18 fatalities. 

“Many of the NTSB investigations determined that WMATA’s inadequate management of its operation contributed to the events, and based on the repeated and ongoing deficiencies identified during its investigations of accidents and incidents involving WMATA, the NTSB concludes that the TOC cannot perform effective safety oversight of the WMATA rail system,” the agency said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. 

“Without adequate oversight, accidents and incidents will continue to place the riders of the WMATA system at risk,” the agency continued. “The NTSB therefore proposes that the DOT seek the authorization under 45 USC Section 1104 to classify WMATA as a commuter authority, thus placing WMATA under the regulatory authority of the FRA.”

The FTA has already recommended a list of nearly 80 safety fixes for WMATA after its investigation of the January incident. Metro has committed to completing the fixes and said the FTA has signed off on its plan.

-This story was updated with new information at 8:09 p.m. 

Tags Anthony Foxx Christopher Hart D.C. Metro Department of Transportation DOT Federal Railroad Administration Federal Transit Administration FRA FTA Metrorail National Transportation Safety Board NTSB Washington Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority WMATA

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