The nation’s top transportation official made the wrong move when he transferred the direct safety oversight of Metrorail to the Federal Transit Administration, federal safety officials said Monday.
“We … believe that the FTA has very limited ability to effectively oversee WMATA,” said Christopher Hart, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, in the letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The letter by the NTSB, which is an independent federal agency, is the latest move in a bureaucratic tussle that began last September. As part of its ongoing investigation of the fatal L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident, the safety board issued an urgent recommendation that Congress shift oversight of Metrorail to the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that oversees Amtrak and other “commuter” railroads.
Foxx responded in early October by rejecting the NTSB’s recommendation by giving the job instead to the Federal Transit Administration, whose past oversight of Metro did not extend beyond finances.
On Feb. 19, Hart notified Foxx his response was “unacceptable,” leaving open the NTSB’s recommendation for a stronger oversight regime for Metro.
“The FTA has no prior experience in direct safety oversight…, has limited staff to carry out this function, and does not have the authority to levy civil or individual penalties in response to safety deficiencies,” Hart said.
“Additionally, the FTA’s oversight of WMATA Metrorail is intended to be temporary, since it will be eliminated when a fully functional [state safety oversight agency] is established to replace the [Tri-State Oversight Committee]. We recently learned that the legislation enabling the creation of a fully functional [state safety oversight agency] for WMATA is going to be delayed until at least 2017. Therefore, the FTA’s temporary authority will likely exist longer than you anticipate,” Hart added.
On Monday, the Department of Transportation maintained its stance that the FTA is the best agency for the job.
“The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is the best and most appropriate agency for the job because it has the industry knowledge, technical ability, and enforcement powers to exercise effective safety oversight,” said DOT spokesperson Namrata Kolachalam.
The federal government’s involvement in Metrorail’s safety problems marked an unprecedented intervention. Never before had the FTA assembled staff to conduct unannounced safety inspections or issue directives to address safety deficiencies at any urban subway system, let alone Metrorail.
Moreover, Foxx has made fixing Metro a priority in his last year in office, announcing that he soon will make changes to the federal representation on Metro’s board of directors. He also has publicly admonished the transit authority for its long delay in hiring a general manager last year and chronic operation problems.
But the NTSB was not impressed with his decision to let FTA straighten out Metro, despite recent legislation by Congress that granted FTA additional authority.
“We believe there are many uncertainties associated with the proposed FTA approach to WMATA oversight,” Hart said. “Our recommendations for WMATA to be ruled a commuter authority and for the FRA to assume oversight responsibility for WMATA Metrorail eliminates these uncertainties because the FRA is an experienced and appropriately staffed regulatory safety oversight agency.”
Railway management expert Steven Ditmeyer, a former top FRA official, said the NTSB has good reason to prefer FRA.
“There is one agency in the federal government that has regulations in place to deal with track, rolling stock, train control systems, and operating practices, and that agency is the Federal Railroad Administration,” he said.