Plan to shift Metro oversight rejected by U.S. Transportation Department

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation has rejected a proposal to shift oversight of Metro, claiming it would lead to complications and delays.

The move comes a little over a week after National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart unveiled a plan to improve Metro safety by shifting oversight to the Federal Railroad Administration.

“The NTSB found little improvement in WMATA’s safety oversight since the 2009 Metrorail accident in Fort Totten that killed nine people,” Hart wrote.

Under the Federal Railroad Administration, Metro would need to be classified as a “commuter railroad,” which would lead to tougher penalties and regulations.

But in a statement emailed to WTOP on Friday, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Suzanne Emmerling said the agency “does not believe that the NTSB recommendation is either the wisest or fastest way to bring about the necessary safety improvements.”

Emmerling said that the department agreed that urgent action is needed, but she said transportation officials believe “there is an even more effective and faster way to achieve the safety goals we all share.” She added that the NTSB recommendation “would unnecessarily complicate and delay safety improvements.”

Emmerling continues: “We take all recommendations of the NTSB seriously, but in this case, the NTSB is recommending shifting safety oversight from one agency to another. And these agencies have different authorities and areas of expertise. The NTSB is not wrong to assert that urgent action is needed; we just believe that there is an even more effective and faster way to achieve the safety goals we all share.”

When Hart released the NTSB proposal, he said the current oversight body, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, was inadequate.

“The [Tri-State Oversight Committee] lacks the power to issue orders or levy fines and has no regulatory or enforcement authority,” Hart wrote.

According to Emmerling’s statement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is working on a different proposal that would focus on strengthening “state oversight of Metro.”

U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said that he  fully supports the NTSB recommendation and that he hoped Foxx reconsiders his position.

“My concern is that this may represent bureaucratic turf battles within the Department of Transportation,” Connolly says. “I hope that (Foxx) will, upon reflection, come up with a plan that is equally effective or yield to the NTSB recommendation.”

Connolly says the safety issue on Metro has reached a “serious boiling point” and it needs to be addressed “very swiftly.”

Nick Iannelli

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

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