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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.


White House Unveils Transit Safety Bill to Cautious Praise on the Hill

Lawmakers on the House transportation committee today greeted details of the Obama administration’s transit safety plan with approval, but some sounded skeptical notes about the costs of state compliance with new federal rules even as transit agencies cope with billions of dollars in maintenance and repair backlogs. Washington D.C.’s transit safety oversight agency has less […]

Proposed Federal Transit Safety Regs Under Scrutiny From House Panel

In June 2009, a fatal crash on the D.C. Metro prompted federal lawmakers to consider adding a new layer of transit safety oversight. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, introduced the National Metro Safety Act of 2009 to establish national safety standards for transit systems. It was never enacted, but it certainly raised the issue’s profile, and Transportation […]