Fed’s Takeover Move Triggered by Metro Crash

Photo courtesy of
‘Wednesday Morning on the Metro’
courtesy of ‘Photos by Chip Py’

The Washington Post wrote Sunday about the Obama administration’s intent to push Congress to implement a large change in how subway safety is regulated and enforced across the country by DOT. Currently, the feds really have no power to set regulations what so ever on subway systems due to a 1965 law passed by Congress that was intended to prevent the government from inhibiting transit growth. Subway safety is typically overseen by a state level agency or, in Metro’s case, an independent Tri-State committee (which the Post notes has exactly zero employees). DOT doesn’t even have the power to make Metro comply with NTSB recommendations today.

It comes as no surprise that this move was triggered by the awful Metro crash in June and the many, many safety incidents that have plagued Metro this year. Our subway system is the second largest in the country, but it is definitely the one that has the most direct effect on Capitol Hill – it moves the majority of Hill staffers to and from work everyday.

WaPo quotes Transportation Secretary LaHood as saying “After the [Metro] train crash, we were all sitting around here scratching our heads, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this and we discovered that there’s not much we could do, because the law wouldn’t allow us to do it.”  The article also quoted Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein as saying “The bottom line is we welcome additional safety oversight with open arms.”

I personally know many people who have stopped riding Metro all together because of the abysmal safety record this year, including several Hill staffers. This has been reflected in the rather unexpected drop in ridership this year that is leaving Metro in an even worse budget situation than predicted. Metro tries to blame the drop on other factors, but following the June crash and the multiple deaths of WMATA employees on the tracks, every DC commuter gave jumping on the Metro a little extra thought before their next trip.

Effectively, under this legislation which is in a very early stage and lacks details so far, Congress would grant the DOT similar oversight and enforcement standards to what they have at airports across the country. Trains, planes and ferries are regulated by the federal government to ensure their safety, but subways were for some reason seen as unique. Now that subways are a core part of life in most major American cities, this seems like a logical move. And while expanding federal government oversight is a last resort, Metro has proved it a very necessary move to make after a dangerous and deadly 2009.

Karl is a Washingtonian who lives and breathes everything that is DC. Politics, ethnic restaurants, sad sports teams, the Metro and pretty much anything in between. Karl’s life is kind of like going to a Nats’ game while eating Ethiopian food and discussing the latest legislation to pass the House. Then cramming on the Metro for a ride home. That ’bout sums it up. See why Karl loves DC or check him out on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Fed’s Takeover Move Triggered by Metro Crash

  1. “…subways were for some reason seen as unique.”

    Why were they unique? Because the vast majority of them didn’t cross state lines. The most stringent federal safety regulations (FAA, FRA) all address transportation systems which cross state lines and therefore trigger Congress’s Constitutional authority under the “interstate commerce” clause.

    Regulating subways and light rail (the only multi-state agencies are in Philly, DC and St. Louis- the rest are intrastate) wasn’t Constitutionally practical. Forget the lame excuse about not wanting to inhibit growth. So since the Federal Transit Administration is incorporated under the “general welfare” clause, not “interstate commerce,” the regulatory authority is much more limited.

    It’ll be interesting to see how the administration skirts this touchy Constitutional land mine.

  2. Good comment Mike, thanks for posting. Your point is definitely valid about most subways operating solely under state jurisdiction, however if the current regulation is prohibited because of legislation passed in the 60’s, I’m not sure how effectively repealing that law could be seen as unconstitutional. But the fact that something is unconstitutional can only be proven by a court challenge so it’s always theoretical until proven I suppose. Also, this legislation is not trying to regulate aspects of the transportation systems that fall outside of “safety”, so it seems that it would make it much easier for this regulatory power to fall under “general welfare”.

    But of course since safety is so far reaching when it comes to transit, gray area abounds.

  3. Metro needs funding to MAKE the improvements any overseers would require — funding to just make the improvements it already needs and wants to make.

    Hooray for better oversight, but until Metro can stop cutting corners and deferring improvements, the lurking danger and apparent malfunctions will continue.

    (And I ride Metro anyway — still safer than driving and still a good system.)

  4. I live in the NYC metro area, an area with fairly good train service that is antiquated occasionally(old trains) but has well lit, bright train stations with safely operated trains, for the most part. I think the DC Metro is not that great a system, compared to NY,Boston, London, Berlin and Chicago(I’m well acquainted with all).

    I recently experienced the DC Metro during a one day visit to DC(lvng Arlington Va to go to Union Station) and I must say I found it, frankly, “weird” and slow. Weird, because the stations are dark and backlit! I could barely read the signs! This is strange given the level of crime in DC!

    Then there are the trains, which look better than NY subway trains(actually are the same type of train car found in the Berlin Underground) but were somewhat slow. Also the “Charlie Card” system is extremly slow. In NY we swipe to get in, not out and that works quite well, given the volume of people and the speed with which we move(faster than DC).

    I think an overhaul might actually make DC Metro more usable.

  5. Although those are good comments, the problem with federal oversight is the various different sizes in Transit Agencies, and Modes. Obvioulsy large cities like DC, Philly, & NY could gain from something like this, but what about the mom and pop systems that dont have the large amount of passengers, and the large amount of funds to bank hiring experts, and people that can run a exstensive SSO program. If a line has 1000 daily ridership, thats not enough to require a in-depth SSO. Thats why Light Rail has never had the reason for Federal oversight. The problem is SSO Authority. Plain and Simple.