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.