Hesitation and Praise Greet Obama Administration’s Transit Safety Plan

Details of the Obama administration's proposal to carve out a federal presence overseeing transit safety, first reported yesterday by the Washington Post, have yet to cross the desks of some top lawmakers and industry stakeholders. But reaction to the idea, both positive and hesitant, is plentiful this morning.

PH2009110818163.jpgThe D.C. Metro (Photo: WaPo)
"Safety is a top priority for the public transportation industry, and we look forward to reviewing the details of the Obama administration's proposal to make our rail transit systems even safer," Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), told Streetsblog Capitol Hill in an emailed statement.

"APTA and its members are committed to work cooperatively with Congress and with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) as new rail transit safety programs and standards are developed."

The administration's plan, set for formal release in the coming weeks, would allow states that already have active transit safety oversight groups to preserve that structure -- as long as the state-level entities could prove they possess adequate authority, independence from the transit agencies they regulate, and numbers of trained staff.

The state transit safety groups that continue their current mode of operating would receive federal money to pay for salaries and training for inspectors and other employees. The state-level entities that could not show minimum compliance would have to cede safety responsibilities to the federal government.

Reaction from members of Congress ran the gamut this weekend. In New York, where the transit safety board has a stronger reputation than the Washington D.C. transit overseer that prompted the Obama administration's move, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) and Rep. Jerrod Nadler (D) both praised the federal safety proposal.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the local Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) reminded Bloomberg News that "strong and independent safety oversight [is] already in place in New York.” And pushback has begun against the notion that national transit safety rules are called for given a recent uptick in the injury rate for subway and light rail passengers -- from 0.483 injuries per 100 million miles, in 2003, to to 1.362 injuries per 100 million miles in 2008.

The injury rate for automobiles, by contrast, was 82 per 100 million miles in 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The fatality rate for autos was comparable to the injury rate for transit, standing at 1.27 per 100 million miles in 2008, down from 1.48 in 2003.

The office of House transportation committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) told the New York Times it would keep mum on the federal safety plan, which is slated for a hearing in his panel next month, while senior Republican John Mica (FL) was a bit more skeptical.

The one constituency that seemed fully behind the pitch for federal transit safety rules was veterans of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Jim Hall, who served as NTSB chairman of the during the Clinton administration, told Bloomberg that the plan could stand to go further and "appears to be half a step in the right direction."