Watchdog group questions fed oversight of DC Metro

Watchdog group questions fed oversight of DC Metro
© Greg Nash

A watchdog group is questioning whether the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is effectively overseeing Washington’s beleaguered Metro system.

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The inspector general for the Department of Transportation (DOT) released an audit on Friday saying the FTA’s oversight may be falling short because its performance criteria are limited and its safety standards are voluntary.

“Recent incidents have demonstrated weaknesses in the safety performance and oversight of some rail transit systems,” the report said, citing a deadly smoke incident in a tunnel outside the L’Enfant Plaza rail station in 2015 that killed one woman and sickened dozens of other riders.

After a string of high-profile safety lapses at Metro, the FTA assumed safety oversight of the transit agency last fall.

The FTA’s oversight is only supposed to be temporary until the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia establish an adequate oversight body, which the local jurisdictions are in the process of creating.

But some critics have worried that the FTA lacks the teeth to effectively oversee the nation's second largest public transit system, even though Congress granted the agency new powers to withhold funds from Metro over safety concerns.

The latest inspector general report found that even though the FTA has established safety performance criteria and set safety standards for Metro, they are limited and unenforceable, which is hindering the agency’s ability to maximize its safety oversight.

The criteria “are based on existing data that do not cover safety critical issues, such as stop signal overruns, hours of service, and medical fitness for duty,” the report said. “Furthermore, the standards are voluntary, which diminishes their effectiveness as an oversight tool.”

The audit said that the FTA has struggled to acquire and retain resources to help it meet its safety oversight program needs. 

Officials attributed the problems to a small pool of transit safety talent, fierce competition between other transit agencies and the temporary nature of the agency’s oversight role.

The report also found that the FTA has been slow to implement a data-driven, risk-based oversight system.

Furthermore, FTA officials are reluctant to collect more robust safety data due to “widespread FTA and transit industry concerns” that the public disclosure of safety data would be used in lawsuits, according to the audit.

Other transportation agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), are allowed to withhold certain safety or security information if public disclosure would inhibit further voluntary provision of that type of information.

The report also pinpointed issues with the FTA’s audit process for state safety oversight agencies, saying it lacks a standardized method for prioritizing activities and does not complete audits three times a year, as recommended.

“While rail transit is relatively safe, catastrophic incidents… raise significant concerns about the effectiveness of rail transit safety oversight,” the report said. “The FTA has taken steps to begin developing policies and procedures to assume and relinquish direct safety oversight, but lacks firm milestones for completion.”

The inspector general is making a series of recommendations, including finalizing a plan with milestones to create a data-driven, risk-based safety oversight system; establishing steps to relinquish oversight; and conducting audits of the state agencies every three years.