A bipartisan group of lawmakers who represent districts in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area are introducing legislation to give the federal government greater authority to regulate the capital area's Metrorail subway system.
Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said Tuesday they are planning to offer the legislation to bolster the federal government's oversight of the D.C. Metro system as an amendment to a highway funding bill that is being considered this week by the House.
The lawmakers said the measure would give the Department of Transportation (DOT) the authority to have direct safety oversight of Metro, which would be a first for both the agency and the capital area transit system. The bill is known as the Protect Riders of Metrorail Public Transportation (PROMPT) Act of 2015.
"My colleagues from the three jurisdictions that use Metrorail and I were able to work together on a bipartisan basis to introduce this bill, which reinforces U.S. DOT’s authority to perform direct safety oversight of WMATA [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority],” Norton said in a statement, noting the last highway bill passed by Congress in 2012, which opened the door to create federal transit oversight.
"MAP-21 directed states to set up State Safety Oversight agencies to perform safety oversight of transit rail systems, but since the bill passed in 2012, only a few states have successfully set up these agencies," Norton continued. "WMATA Metrorail is unique because it traverses three jurisdictions, and operates almost like a commuter rail."
The DOT has said that is open to taking over oversight of the Metrorail system, which is the second busiest subway in the nation. 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.
The sponsors of the amendment to codify the proposal further in federal law said the increase in federal oversight of the D.C. Metro system is long overdue.
"For years, safety oversight of WMATA has failed to protect the lives of our constituents and ensure consistent operations,” said Edwards, who is running for Senate in 2016. “That is why in past Congresses, Sen. [Barbara] Mikulski [D-Md.], Congresswoman Norton and I worked to establish federal safety standards for heavy rail systems. As that effort continues, today’s legislation is a critical step forward to provide the Secretary of Transportation with additional oversight and real enforcement powers to ensure immediate and significant progress is made in improving WMATA’s safety record and management."
“The safety failures and the unreliability of Metro threaten our commuters and constituents daily,” Comstock added. “The Tri-State Oversight Commission has been unable to provide proper oversight of Metro. This bipartisan legislation reinforces and expands the U.S. Department of Transportation's authority to conduct much needed and direct oversight of Metro to provide safety and reliability to our commuters."
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 FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxBusiness, labor groups teaming in high-speed rail push Hillicon Valley: Uber, Lyft agree to take California labor win nationwide | Zoom to implement new security program along with FTC | Virgin Hyperloop completes first test ride with passengers Uber, Lyft eager to take California labor win nationwide MORE 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.
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."