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: VisitingDC.com)
Referencing 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 introduction of lighter-weight cars, coming under fire from rail advocates.

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 indicated 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 budget crises 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 proposal.

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