Skip to Content
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Log In
Federal Transit Administration

Obama Aide Defends Transit Safety Plan as Different from Rail Rules

Federal Transit Administration (FTA) chief Peter Rogoff
today mounted a defense of the White House's transit
safety plan
, assuring some skeptical members of Congress that he
does not want to "replicate" inter-city rail safety rules that have taken flak for impeding the
development of viable U.S. train networks.

reagan_metro_station.jpgAs of last year, D.C.'s Metro had
less than one full-time employee working on its safety panel. (Photo:

the safety struggles of Washington D.C.'s Metro transit system, where
oversight was
relegated to
an under-funded, effectively inactive committee before
a series of rail accidents last year, Rogoff acknowledged that previous
federal regulators were "complicit in wrongdoing" to some degree.

"[W]e engaged in at least helping the transit industry develop
voluntary [safety] standards," Rogoff told the House oversight
committee. "As a federal agency, I feel it's our obligation to identify
what the safe practices [are]. The only way we can ensure there will be
safe practices is to have mandatory standards."

The Obama administration's transit safety proposal [PDF]
would seek to impose such mandatory standards for transit safety,
requiring local agencies to meet a minimum threshold of compliance or be
subject to federal monitoring. The president's budget for fiscal year
2011 would set aside about $30 million to help transit agencies pay for
any safety upgrades required by the new federal oversight.

"It is not our goal to replicate the voluminous [Federal Rail
Administration] rulebook for transit systems," Rogoff told lawmakers.
The FRA's slate of safety standards have required Amtrak's Acela trains to
stop short of
maximum speeds and Caltrain commuter rail to delay
of lighter-weight cars, coming under fire from rail

But lawmakers' openness to debating the White House safety plan
does not mean the FTA can count on passage this year. Leaders of the
House transportation committee have
they do not aim to take up the transit safety bill as a
free-standing measure, instead leaving the issue to the next six-year
federal infrastructure bill -- which may not come to a final vote until
next spring at the earliest.

The transport panel's senior Republican, Rep. John Mica (FL), is
opposed to creating a new federal system to monitor safety but said at
today's hearing -- Mica also sits on the oversight committee -- that "I
don't mind spending our resources on safety." Rather than ask transit
agencies to submit their safety work for FTA approval, Mica said, the
Obama administration should spend more money on upgrading older,
decaying transit infrastructure.

The challenge of ensuring passenger safety during an era of transit
is particularly acute at D.C.'s Metro, which lacks a
dedicated source of revenue other than contributions from its three
participating governments (D.C., Virginia, and Maryland) and Congress.
Transit officials in the capital are mulling a package of fare hikes and
service cuts, as well as a possible gas
tax hike
, to close a $180 million-plus budget gap for next year.

"I think the safety
problems we are seeing now at Metro are symptomatic of a larger problem,
particularly on the rail system: years of deferred maintenance and
management problems are taking their toll," Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY),
chairman of the oversight committee, said in his opening statement.

Yet only a few lawmakers questioned Rogoff on the federal
government's role in ensuring transit agencies would receive more money
for maintenance of their existing systems. Among them was Rep. Gerry
Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia constituents are frequent users of
the D.C. Metro.

"The federal government has to be at the table with operational
dollars" if Congress agrees to impose new safety standards, he said,
adding that "long before Mr. Rogoff [joined the FTA], the federal
government has been retreating from its responsibilities to transit,"
particularly Metro.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) painted a bleak picture, asking Rogoff
to outline the likely result if Congress cannot sign off on the safety

"It seems like the right hand doesn't know what the head or the
left hand is doing," he said.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter