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.


On the Pitfalls and Benefits of National Transit Safety Standards

The second hearing in three days on the Obama administration’s proposal for national transit safety rules made headlines mostly for its affect on the Washington D.C. area, where Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-MD) blistering critique of the local Metro rail system prompted high-level management switches. "There’s a saying in our business," APTA President William Millar (above) […]

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 […]

D.C. Metro Shutdown Should Be a Wakeup Call: Spend Smart on Transit

Today’s emergency 24-hour shutdown of the D.C. Metro system is a transit embarrassment of epic proportions. The shutdown follows an electrical fire in a subway tunnel Monday, and will allow for system-wide safety inspections. Metro has been under federal control following a smoke inhalation death caused by a similar problem last year. David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington wonders how the region’s […]

Transpo Funding Intrigue in Washington State

Here’s a look at what’s happening around the Streetsblog Network today… Washington Governor Jay Inslee may go ahead and swallow the “poison pill” that Republican legislators insisted on including in a state transportation package, reports Frank Chachiere at Seattle Transit Blog. That would mean Inslee will go ahead with a low-carbon fuel standard for the state, which will […]