Hesitation and Praise Greet Obama Administration’s Transit Safety Plan

Details of the Obama administration’s proposal to carve out a federal presence overseeing transit safety, first reported yesterday
by the Washington Post, have yet to cross the desks of some top
lawmakers and industry stakeholders. But reaction to the idea, both
positive and hesitant, is plentiful this morning.

PH2009110818163.jpgThe D.C. Metro (Photo: WaPo)

"Safety
is a top priority for the public transportation
industry, and we look forward to reviewing the details of the Obama
administration’s proposal to make our rail transit systems even safer,"
Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation
Association
(APTA), told Streetsblog Capitol Hill in an emailed statement.

"APTA and its members are committed to work cooperatively with
Congress and with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) as new rail transit safety programs and standards are developed."

The
administration’s plan, set for formal release in the coming weeks,
would allow states that already have active transit safety oversight
groups to preserve that structure — as long as the state-level
entities could prove they possess adequate authority, independence from
the transit agencies they regulate, and numbers of trained staff.

The
state transit safety groups that continue their current mode of
operating would receive federal money to pay for salaries and training
for inspectors and other employees. The state-level entities that could
not show minimum compliance would have to cede safety responsibilities
to the federal government.

Reaction from members of Congress ran the gamut this weekend. In New York, where the transit safety board has a stronger reputation than the Washington D.C. transit overseer that prompted the Obama administration’s move, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) and Rep. Jerrod Nadler (D) both praised the federal safety proposal.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the local Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) reminded Bloomberg News that "strong and independent safety
oversight [is] already in place in New York.” And pushback has begun
against the notion that national transit safety rules are called for
given a recent uptick in the injury rate for subway and light rail
passengers — from 0.483 injuries per 100 million miles, in 2003, to to
1.362 injuries per 100 million miles in 2008.

The fatality rate for automobiles, by contrast, stood at 1.27 per 100 million miles in 2008, down from 1.48 in 2003.

The office of House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) told the
New York Times it would keep mum on the federal safety plan, which is
slated for a hearing in his panel next month, while senior Republican
John Mica (FL) was a bit more skeptical.

The
one constituency that seemed fully behind the pitch for federal transit
safety rules was veterans of the National Transportation Safety Board
(NTSB). Jim Hall, who served as NTSB chairman of the during the Clinton
administration, told Bloomberg that the plan could stand to go further and "appears to be half a step in the right direction."