The federal government’s temporary role of directly watching over Metro will extend into 2017.
Transportation bureaucrats and legislative leaders in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia say they will fail to establish an independent safety oversight group this year, two months after the head of the Federal Transportation Administration implored them to act well before a 2019 deadline looms.
The announcement came during a board meeting Wednesday of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), a body of elected officials representing cities, towns, and counties across the region, and it took some members by surprise.
“This is crazy,” said Phil Mendelson, the chairman of the D.C. Council. He blamed bureaucrats within the transportation departments in the two states and the District for not moving quickly enough.
“They missed a deadline. They missed it not by a day or a week or an hour, they missed it by a year,” he said.
Feds to region: get moving
In November, FTA acting administrator Therese McMillan appeared before the COG board with a message to establish the Metro Safety Commission in 2016, which would require identical legislation in each of the three main Metro jurisdictions.
“There continues to be insufficient progress,” said McMillan, aware that time already was running short.
The legislative sessions now underway in Virginia and Maryland would last only until March and April, respectively. As it turns out, proposals never made it out of the transportation bureaucracies because of legal and technical issues that will need more time to be untangled.
On Wednesday, McMillan released a statement expressing disappointment “that it appears yet another year will pass without Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia acting to establish a new, effective and capable regional safety oversight body for WMATA Metrorail.”
“The three jurisdictions first agreed to do just that in 2010,” the statement said. “I fully support [Transportation] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx's call for the Governors and the Mayor to expedite their efforts and examine all possible actions within their power to reach final agreement and move forward to improve the safety of Metrorail passengers and employees.”
FTA assumed direct safety supervision of Metro in October, but McMillan repeatedly has emphasized the move was designed to be temporary.
Wait until next 2017
Although the legislative bodies in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia will be ultimately responsible for creating the new oversight body, COG officials are facilitating the deliberations.
“Meeting the January 13 deadline for filing simultaneous, complex legislation was ultimately not in the cards,” said Chuck Bean, COG’s executive director, who said officials made some substantial progress late last year but not enough to wrap up the process in 2016.
“I’ve observed the three states working earnestly to hammer out some of the issues,” Bean said in remarks to reporters. “These safety commissions are rather new, called for in federal legislation. So there has been a lot of focus on the nitty-gritty legal parameters, particularly around enforcement. What enforcement mechanisms would this commission have to oversee WMATA’s safety?”
In 2010, the region’s leaders agreed to replace the ineffective Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) with an independent commission with regulatory authority to enforce safety rules on Metrorail. TOC was exposed as ineffective in the aftermath of the 2009 Red Line disaster at Fort Totten.
In 2012, Congress passed legislation requiring the three jurisdictions to act. The deadline is in 2019.
“We’ve been aggressively working on this and I can report very good progress with Maryland and D.C.,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne. “We all get it. But people have to understand there is a whole lot that has to go into the agreements.”
Layne expressed confidence the necessary legislation would be approved by the state’s legislature next year.
“We made substantial progress in the last several months. The jurisdictions agree there are too many outstanding legal and technical issues to be resolved before moving forward with legislation,” said Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation.
Safety without safety oversight
Rail safety experts have pointed to a connection between Metro’s chronic safety problems and the lack of effective oversight. The aforementioned TOC had no regulatory power. FTA received new enforcement authority in the MAP-21 legislation of 2012, but rail safety experts believe it is not enough.
“The new commission among the two states and the District of Columbia would have enforcement authority. That is the only effective type of oversight that will cure the basic problems at Metro,” said Lawrence Mann, a retired attorney who represented relatives of victims of the 2009 Red Line crash.
There must be some authority to enforce safety. Otherwise, Metro can continue to do what it has been doing for years, and that is paying little attention to safety,” said Mann, a chief author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970.