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.

  • bikerider

    Good Grief.

    Federalizing transit-safety rules (which is what Elana seems to be advocating here) would be unbelievably disastrous. It would not do anything to improve safety, but would drive up costs enormously. That is precisely what has happened in EVERY SINGLE case where safety rules were Federalized — either under FRA or FTA.

    Even with all the recent crashes in the news, the fact remains that transit is 1-2 order magnitude safer than autos. Let’s go after the low-hanging fruit.

  • Why business does a third-world (in transit terms) country like the USA have attempting to set standards?

    The way retarded organizations improve rapidly is to copy and borrow from more successful ones, not to invent their own square wheels.

    They’d only be disastrously backwards, raising costs even further, increasing operating inefficiencies, and systematically excluding the best and most successful technologies and operations (which are *all* foreign).

    We’re absolutely screwed in mainline rail by the 19th century neanderthals at the Federal Railroad Administration — consider the disaster of SMART, which should taken out and shot, 100% defunded, not built as 19th century operation.

    Without federal “oversight” craziness, there’s at least a tiny glimmer of a chance that some state or smaller jurisdiction somewhere might accidentally get something right — ie copy something foreign. (Consider the example of Austin’s newish rail system, which imported Swiss vehicles. Yes, Texas hicks beat Sonoma-Marin mush-heads.)

    With a known-nothing, self-aggrandizing, insular, protectionist, economically illiterate (no price is too high for “safety” … including making automobiles the preferred mode) federal bureaucracy there wouldn’t even be a small chance of improvement of technical conditions.

    Just say no!

    US transit is more than safe enough. Even Muni, for God’s sake. It’s just wildly inefficient, costly, and decades behind the technological and organizational levels of overseas practice.

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