The Peculiar Federalism of Transit Safety: No National Standards Exist

The recent crash of two D.C. Metro trains has laid bare a glaring lack of authority at the obscure local committee that is supposed to ensure transit riders' safety, as the Washington Post reported today. But the problem is bigger than the nation's capital: The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has not issued broad safety rules for rail transit, leaving the issue in the hands of state oversight agencies.

reagan_metro_station.jpgThe state agency overseeing safety on this D.C. Metro train has almost one full-time employee, according to the Washington Post. (Photo: VisitingDC.com)

The Obama administration plans to reform this federalist approach to transit safety, which has allowed the D.C. Metro to postpone installation of a backup train monitoring system suggested by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Aside from California's 12-person oversight panel, the average state safety agency has less than one full-time employee, FTA chief Peter Rogoff said last week.

Meanwhile, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently ruled that "positive train control" crash protection systems must be in use on commuter and inter-city passenger rail systems -- though it lacks the power to extend that mandate to rail transit.

"What's more important than whether the FTA [sets national safety standards] or whether the FRA does it is that someone does it who has the teeth and the authority and the funding and the personnel to really compel the attention of the transit agencies," Rogoff told the Senate Banking Committee.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) introduced legislation two weeks ago that would authorize the U.S. DOT to begin setting national safety guidelines for rail transit. In her speech introducing the bill, Mikulski said she was responding to an NTSB briefing she received after the D.C. Metro crash on June 22.

This is when I learned the NTSB had recommended that the ... FTA establish federal standards for metro systems but the FTA had not taken action. Apparently, the FTA doesn't think it has this authority. Well, my bill fixes that.

But how does the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which represents the nation's transit networks, view the prospect of federal oversight? APTA President William Millar told the Post he was wary of "throw[ing] the baby out with the bath water," given that transit remains far safer than car travel, but he refrained from weighing in on the Mikulski bill.

Late Update: APTA spokeswoman Virginia Miller told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that the group "has not yet taken a position on whether or not the FTA should have regulatory oversight" but plans to work with Congress and the administration "to continue to improve safety in an already very safe industry."

Miller also cited U.S. DOT data that showed a 0.03 percent per-passenger fatality rate for every 100 million miles traveled on transit between 2002 and 2008. For autos, the fatality rate was 0.87 percent -- or 29 times higher.