The federal agency taking on unprecedented, direct supervision of safety oversight of Metro will have to hire outside personnel to do the job, the head of the Federal Transit Administration said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
The FTA will augment its current safety team of fewer than 30 personnel by hiring consultants and recruiting employees from other divisions of the Department of Transportation, the transit agency’s acting administrator Therese McMillan said.
“FTA leading safety oversight of WMATA is the strictest level of federal safety oversight ever placed on a single transit agency,” McMillan said. “This is an unprecedented move for us, but it is important to note that we have the resources and we have the ability to do the job.”
In late September, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an urgent recommendation for Congress to transfer safety oversight of Metro to the Federal Railroad Administration, citing its large staff of inspectors and technical expertise. However, Sec. of Transportation Anthony Foxx rejected the NTSB’s move, and instead ordered the FTA to exercise new authority established in the MAP-21 legislation of 2012.
FTA — and consultants — at the helm
For the first time the FTA will conduct unannounced inspections and issue safety directives that Metro must comply with or risk either the loss or redirection of critical funding. About 40 percent of Metro’s capital spending budget comes from the federal treasury.
“Those directives have the force of law and we would use them as we would deem necessary,” McMillan said.
But who will do the inspections?
“There will be consultants that will be under direct FTA supervision, and we are bringing on additional FTA funds for that purpose. We also will be deploying expert safety staff from other branches of the DOT including FAA and FRA who have skill sets that could be extremely helpful in this larger effort,” McMillan said.
The Federal Transit Administration’s new Metro-focused safety team will be led by Sean Thompson, who previously worked for the Federal Railroad Administration as a deputy regional administrator.
The FRA has 341 inspectors nationwide and the authority to impose fines on the railroads it oversees, such as Amtrak and freight rail lines. However, FRA inspects only 1 percent of railroad operations nationally.
“I think we have to be careful about making a comparison of inspectors covering the whole national agenda for FRA compared to the very specific and targeted exercise we are doing right now,” McMillan said. “We will bring on the folks that we need, and that is one of the things that will be one of the top staffing decisions in the very near future.”
Still, the FTA is known as a grant funding agency, a fact that has not escaped rail safety experts such as Lawrence Mann, who has been following the industry for the past half century.
A chief author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, Mann, an attorney, represented relatives of the victims of the 2009 Red Line disaster at Fort Totten. The FTA’s plan to hire outside consultants will be difficult, he said.
“[Consultants] are not involved in the everyday operations of, in this case, Metro. They don’t know the ins and outs of Metro operations. It will be a big learning curve and I just don’t think they’re equipped to do the job,” Mann said.
For years, Mann’s stance has been that Congress must provide the FTA stricter regulatory authority and the power to impose fines for safety lapses.
“And they need to give them adequate personnel. Short of that, this is not going to be an effective oversight. I don’t think FTA has the technical expertise, either,” Mann said.
WMATA still running WMATA
Acting administrator McMillan is asking Congress for the authority to impose civil penalties in the reauthorization of MAP-21, but even with that power she cautioned that federal oversight should not been seen as a panacea.
“The FTA does not run WMATA, and we are not running WMATA as a result of the Secretary’s letter. WMATA runs WMATA,” she said.
“WMATA is responsible for maintaining the system. The general manager has got to come onboard to be at the helm of turning WMATA around, including the safety agenda that we will be overseeing,” McMillan said, referring to a comprehensive safety audit released in June that recommended close to 100 safety fixes to Metro’s rail and bus operations.
“Importantly, federal dollars invested in Metro rail must be spent on implementing this corrective action plan, and all related safety requirements that are attached to it. Part of our leadership is going to ensure that those grant dollars are directed toward safety priorities,” McMillan said.
Metro is expected to hire a new general manager within weeks, more than a year after their last permanent general manager — Richard Sarles — announced his retirement.
The FTA’s role overseeing Metro is supposed to be temporary. Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia are statutorily required to create an independent oversight body to supplant the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which has been exposed as toothless and ineffective in multiple federal investigations of Metro calamities.