Feds want ‘fire lit’ under region for Metro safety

WASHINGTON — The leaders of the federal agency taking the lead on Metro oversight hope the agency does not have the responsibility for long, and its leaders strongly urged the region Thursday to finally set up a long-promised independent oversight and enforcement group.

Acting Administrator Therese McMillian of the Federal Transit Administration told the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that there is no time to waste in setting up the Metro Safety Commission that was first discussed in 2010, and again promised in 2014.

“It is now November of 2015 and there continues to be insufficient progress,” she says.

The commission would replace the Tri-State Oversight Committee, which has been panned as lacking independence in addition to its absence of enforcement powers.

“Virginia, Maryland and the District need to expedite transition of the TOC into a new and stronger state safety oversight agency,” McMillan said.

That would require new laws and funding for the safety commission to be passed in each of the three jurisdictions. In Maryland and Virginia, those laws would have to be passed this winter since that is the only time the legislatures are scheduled to be in session.

The D.C. Council does not have a similar limit on its sessions.

“There are the pieces to put together this puzzle to get the right state safety oversight set up and we just want a fire lit to make sure that happens,” McMillan says.

For now, the FTA is taking on the role of that safety commission, including hiring or bringing in inspectors and investigators from other parts of the Department of Transportation.

“Only until the new state safety oversight agency is established, and importantly, we have had the opportunity to confirm that they have the capabilities needed to carry out the responsibilities as required,” McMillan says of FTA’s continued role.

“We are fulfilling a critical function, but we are only bridging the gap,” she says.

There are 30 state safety oversight agencies across the country, two of which already fully comply with new federal rules set to be issued early next year. McMillan says while the final deadline for compliance is expected to be 2019, the Washington region can’t afford to wait until then.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova told McMillan the region can pull together.

“We will be able to make the progress that you’re expecting,” Bulova said to McMillan.

Although that has been promised before, Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner says a difference will be seen between the enforcement from the FTA for now and the Metro Safety Commission later.
“The key for an effective oversight agency is not just to raise its hand, but to have a hammer as well, and if any organization needs a hammer, it is this organization,” he says.

“I understand differences on funding, I understand differences on service, I don’t understand differences on safety,” he adds.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says this all should be much simpler.

McMillian says “it’s definitely not business as usual” with Metro, but emphasizes that “WMATA runs WMATA, not the FTA.”

“Establishing a state safety oversight agency is a requirement of federal law, it needs to be met, the pieces are in place, let’s put that puzzle together,” she implores the region’s leaders.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority for all of us. It is a shared responsibility, it is one where we all need to step it up.”

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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