The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is getting new tools to aid its mission to improve safety at federally funded public transportation systems, including Washington, D.C.’s troubled Metrorail system.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) finalized a rule this week – going into effect next month – that provides the legal framework for a program aimed at monitoring, overseeing and enforcing transit safety across the country.

{mosads}Congress directed the agency to create the program in the 2012 highway law, giving FTA the authority to audit transportation systems that receive federal funds and take enforcement actions against local agencies that don’t comply with safety laws.

The new rule is the latest step in the effort, providing an umbrella for “all other FTA safety rulemakings and guidance documents,” according to a press release.

It outlines the procedural requirements for the agency to issue directives, promulgate regulations and inspect and audit the operations of transit agencies.

“With today’s action, FTA continues its steady progress in establishing the regulatory framework needed to implement and strengthen our new and existing safety transit oversight and enforcement authorities,” said FTA Acting Administrator Carolyn Flowers.

The new powers could play a crucial role in the agency’s efforts to turn around Washington’s Metrorail.

Some critics have worried that the agency, which assumed temporary oversight of Metrorail in the fall, lacked the teeth to effectively oversee the nation’s second largest public transit system.

Here are ways that the FTA can bolster safety at public transportation systems like Metro under its new safety program.


Prioritize funding for fixes

The FTA can now require transportation agencies to use certain federal funds on fixing safety deficiencies before spending the money on other projects or purposes.

Metro has taken flak for expanding its rail system to include the new Silver Line out to Dulles International Airport before addressing a string of ongoing safety issues, which have recently come to a head.

Under new leadership, the transit agency is now working to implement a massive, yearlong repair effort to tackle a backlog of deferred maintenance.


Withhold money

In the final rule, the FTA was granted permission to withhold up to 25 percent of a transit agency’s federal funds received through the Urbanized Area Formula Program, if the recipient has shown a pattern of serious safety violations or refuses to comply with safety laws.

In public comments on the proposal, many expressed concern that transit agencies could lose federal funding for safety violations that were the product of decades-old neglect or chronic underfunding.

Some critics also lamented that there was not a sufficient appeals process and asked the FTA to give local agencies time to mitigate issues before pulling money.

The FTA tweaked the final rule so that it would have to consider an agency’s response to a notice of violation within 30 days before making a decision.


Conduct audits, investigations and tests

Under the program, the FTA is allowed to “inspect, investigate, audit, examine and test transit agencies’ facilities, equipment, rolling stock and operations.” The FTA’s activities must be performed at reasonable times and the transit agencies given advance notice to the extent possible.

The agency may also require more frequent oversight or reporting requirements, and issue directives and advisories.

During the comment period, some wanted transit agencies to be able to object to auditors entering the property for safety reasons or scheduling conflicts.

It’s an issue that has surfaced in Washington, as FTA inspectors have been denied access to Metro’s tracks on several occasions.

But in the final rule, the FTA pushed back, saying it does not agree “that a host agency should be able to place limitations on FTA’s exercise of its statutory authority when conducting compliance activities associated with this rule.”

The agency added that it would comply with local safety and training protocols, but that training FTA representatives on the specific safety rules for each location wasn’t feasible.


Shut down operations

The FTA is allowed to impose restrictions or prohibitions on a transit agency’s operations if it determines that an unsafe condition or practice creates a substantial risk of death or personal injury.

Metro officials closed down the entire subway system in March for a daylong emergency inspection, following an earlier tunnel fire that resembled a deadly incident last year.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx admitted that he considered shutting down Metro after two more smoke and fire incidents occurred on the subway in the following months.

“If we continue to find that the culture of the system gets in the way of our work, I will have no hesitation to shut down the system,” Foxx said.


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