WASHINGTON — The D.C. region jointly has let things slip at Metro, and officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District aren’t showing the urgency needed to turn things around and improve the safety record on one of the busiest subway systems in the country, two top federal transportation officials said.
U.S. Transportation Sec. Anthony Foxx said Wednesday that the Federal Transit Administration’s safety oversight of Metro is “not a permanent occupation,” but a “temporary mission.” So he is going straight to the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia shortly to urge them to take up and pass the legislation needed to create an independent Metro oversight commission this year.
Any such action at this point would likely require special sessions later this year as Maryland and Virginia have part-time legislatures that are set to wrap up in April and March. The D.C. Council, which meets year round, would also have to approve matching legislation.
The now federally-required Metro Safety Commission would provide true independent enforcement for the first time at the local level.
Foxx and acting Administrator Therese McMillan say the FTA has conducted 39 inspections of various parts of the Metro system since taking over safety oversight last fall. The body the FTA took over for, the Tri-State Oversight Commission, had little authority and was hobbled by jurisdictional disputes. It conducted no inspections.
McMillan would not say specifically what issues those inspections have found in addition to all of the safety directives already publicly issued for Metro, but she said that the issues are being addressed and more inspections are planned.
Foxx hopes the threat from the FTA of withholding funding for transit projects across the jurisdictions if the Metro Safety Commission is not created should be enough to finally jolt the region into action.
“You would think that if you have thousands of people traveling on the system every day, from all these jurisdictions, that safety would be something that nobody would let fall off the table. And yet, it has,” he said.
Under recent changes in federal law, the state safety oversight groups will be required soon nationwide.
“There’s no reason in the world this issue shouldn’t already be resolved,” Foxx said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser are set to meet Thursday morning in Annapolis to discuss regional issues including Metro.
Foxx calls that meeting an “encouraging sign.” But he plans to send letters to the legislative branch in each jurisdiction urging them to take action as well.
“We’ve just seen WMATA, and really all of the parties that stand up WMATA as a group, let stuff slip,” he said.
McMillan said the only way to start safety improvements is to build the foundation of local, independent oversight that will be able to keep Metro on its toes as the FTA is doing.
“Since 2010, there have been discussions about what needs to be done (to create the commission), we just want to see it finished,” she said.
Foxx calls it an “open question” whether local and state officials really feel the urgency needed.
Asked about whether the legislatures should hold special sessions to address the issue, Foxx calls the safety commission a hugely important issue, and acting would send important signals to the federal government and riders.
Foxx says Metro still needs to change its overall attitude about safety, and that he will ask the jurisdictions about the safety commission every time they ask the Department of Transportation for help on other projects.
“We want a proactive safety culture,” he said. “We are not where we should be.”