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Feds Threaten To Withhold Funding Over Metro Safety Board Foot-Dragging

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Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a warning to the D.C. mayor and the governors of Maryland and Virginia.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a warning to the D.C. mayor and the governors of Maryland and Virginia.

Federal officials are threatening to withhold transit funding from D.C., Maryland and Virginia unless they establish a new Metro safety oversight body by Feb. 9, 2017, according to letters sent by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) acting administrator Therese McMillan to the leaders of the three jurisdictions on Monday.

The threat is the latest move to pressure legislators and bureaucrats in the two states and the District to comply with federal law by forming a Metro Safety Commission to replace the ineffective Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), a local panel that lacked any authority to force Metro to comply with safety standards.

In October, Secretary Foxx ordered the FTA to assume direct safety oversight of Metro on a temporary basis until D.C., Maryland and Virginia could set up the new commission. But on Jan. 14, regional officials announced it would not happen this year even after McMillan, in remarks before the Council of Governments in November, publicly called on them to act quickly.

“Our expectation that the jurisdictions will address this matter this year has not changed,” Secretary Foxx said in his letter to governors Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) and Larry Hogan (R-Md.) and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D-D.C.). “We expect that your jurisdictions will move quickly to create a federally compliant [safety commission] that FTA can approve.”

If the Metro Safety Commission is not ready in one year, the FTA may withhold up to 5 percent of federal funds that typically pay for the maintenance and construction of transit infrastructure and purchases of buses and railcars.

The secretary had indicated he was ready to take such action during an interview on Feb. 2.

"I will use every tool at my disposal to ensure they know they've got less time than they seem to believe they have to get this done," Foxx said. "Babysitting safety oversight [of Metro] is not one of our prized things to be doing."

Local lawmakers behind on legislation

The necessary legislation to create the safety commission — identical bills in Richmond, Annapolis and the District — will have to be completed early next year when the state legislatures reconvene, according to Virginia’s top transportation official.

“I believe a lot of legwork has been done, but in terms of getting it done this year, it will not happen during our legislative session, which is going to end in March,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne. "Then we will work diligently in Maryland and D.C. to have it teed up when they reconvene next year and we will get it done."

The legislative sessions in Virginia and Maryland end in March and April, respectively. But even before legislators adjourn they will not get to see any potential bills because the work remains tied up by legal and technical issues inside the transportation bureaucracies in the three jurisdictions.

“It's unfortunate that the U.S. Department of Transportation seems unwilling to acknowledge the significant legal and statutory challenges associated with the formation of the [Metro Safety Commission],” said Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn in a statement.

“However, Maryland will be moving forward with a proposal that addresses our shared goal of making WMATA and Metro as safe as possible, but only after we have fully resolved a series of critical, outstanding legal and technical issues.”

Phil Mendelson, the chair of the D.C. Council, said the strongly worded letters from Foxx and McMillan were unsurprising.

“The jurisdictions have been dragging their feet and have known for quite some time that safety needs to be the highest priority and this new Metro safety committee has to be established,” Mendelson said.

Feds flexing new safety role

Foxx’s warning about the loss of transit funding is the latest in a series of moves in the federal government’s unprecedented intervention in an urban subway system.

“This is the first time that the federal government has so involved itself in directing the safety oversight program of any transit authority in the country,” said Steven Ditmeyer, a former high-ranking federal transportation official who now works as a consultant.

Ditmeyer questioned whether any withholding of funds would ultimately deprive Metro of resources.

“To withhold those funds at a time when Metro needs money for investing in track, rolling stock, signaling and personnel training to improve safety would work at cross purposes to that,” Ditmeyer said.

An FTA spokesman said it is too early to determine whether Metro would suffer if transit funds were withheld from the three jurisdictions.

“FTA will not make a decision whether to withhold any funding…until one year after today’s finding by FTA of the inadequacy of the Tri-State Oversight Committee. Any decision about the amount of funds to be withheld, or public transportation systems that would be affected, will be made in light of the totality of circumstances at that time,” the spokesman said in a statement.

The bureaucratic maneuvering to create an independent, effective oversight body comes as federal officials, in their new safety role, investigate yet another incident on Metrorail.

As NBC4 first reported, an Orange Line train overran a red signal near Smithsonian station just after midnight Wednesday. The train stopped within 150 feet of another train already at the Smithsonian platform.

“Red signal overruns are a very serious safety concern and thankfully no one was injured or killed as a result of the incident," said an agency spokesman. "As the investigation is ongoing, FTA is unable to comment further."

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