House and Senate Split on Approach to Obama’s Transit Safety Plan

After a year marked by discord between the House and Senate over the timing of the next federal transportation bill, another split emerged yesterday over the timetable for taking up the Obama administration's plan for federal involvement in transit safety oversight.

micacommuterrail196f.jpgRep. John Mica (R-FL) opposes the White House safety plan, but he also wants to see it debated as part of broader transport legislation. (Photo: Orlando Sentinel)

Speaking to the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) annual conference, aides to both House infrastructure committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) and Rep. John Mica (FL), the panel's top Republican, said they aim to make the White House's proposed transit safety legislation part of the broader debate over restructuring federal transport programs -- an issue that may not come before Congress until next year.

But an adviser to the Senate Banking Committee's senior Republican, Richard Shelby (AL), said he wants the transit safety bill to be "a free-standing piece of legislation and not wait until" lawmakers can agree on a long-term federal transport bill.

In remarks that touched on the continuing impasse over that six-year transport bill, Oberstar aide Amy Scarton asked APTA members to provide input on the White House transit safety proposal, which has gotten mixed reviews from transit officials. The safety legislation is set to move through the House "as part of the long-term surface transportation bill," she said.

Meanwhile, Mica remains opposed to the Obama team's strategy of asking state transit overseers (known as SSOs) to submit to federal supervision if their programs are deemed out of compliance with minimal safety standards, according to aide Joyce Rose. The Floridian would prefer to bolster individual SSOs with grant money to avoid "creating a new federal bureaucracy," she said.

But Rose agreed with Scarton that transit safety should move as part of the broader transport bill, a perspective that runs counter to the administration's hopes for quick passage of its proposed legislation.

After the House aides spoke, Shannon Hines -- who served as Shelby's chief of staff before moving to the Banking panel in 2007 -- expressed her boss' differing view on the transit safety debate.

It remains to be seen whether other senators share his view on the timing for safety legislation. An adviser to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) did not mention the retiring Banking chairman's preferred approach yesterday, and a spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a leading voice on transit safety, told Streetsblog Capitol Hill that the Maryland senator is "looking at all the options" in order to approve the administration's safety plan "as quickly as possible."