Feds withhold DC, Md., Va. transit funds over Metro Safety Commission delays

WASHINGTON – Transit systems across Maryland, Virginia and the District will miss out on $8.9 million in federal funding because the region has failed for years to set up an adequate safety oversight program for Metro.

On Friday, the Federal Transit Administration followed through on threats to hold back 5 percent of all transit funding for D.C., Maryland and Virginia if a new Metro Safety Commission was not established by Thursday, a threat made last year by Obama administration Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The commission was first promised in 2010 after a deadly 2009 Red Line crash exposed major issues with the old Tri-State Oversight Committee. That group had no enforcement power and got bogged down in regional disputes. The issues again were a focus when Carol Glover died on a smoke-filled Yellow Line train years later. That incident and other findings eventually led to the Federal Transit Administration taking over temporary safety oversight for the system until the safety commission could be established.

The region agreed on the language for the commission last summer, the D.C. Council passed the bill on Dec. 20, and Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the bill on Friday.

But regional leaders had always said this week’s deadline would not be met due to the schedules of the Maryland and Virginia legislatures.

What local transit agencies stand to lose

The money withheld over coming months adds up to $5.2 million for Metro, the Maryland Transit Administration’s operations in the immediate D.C. area, and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) in Virginia.

“Federal formula dollars support Metro’s capital program, which is critical to the safety and maintenance of train and bus service,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said in an email. “We will work closely with the funding jurisdictions to determine how best to make up the difference to avoid reducing safety or reliability projects.”

Metro already is facing budget issues and only recently escaped federal withholding for some grants.

On Thursday, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said he had briefly talked with new U.S.  Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at an event and said that she had expressed significant interest in Metro.

He said he hoped to have a formal meeting with her soon.

Maryland’s MTA will lose more than $2 million more for commuter bus and other services across the rest of the state.

In Virginia, transit agencies in Richmond, Roanoke and Virginia Beach will miss out on funds. Smaller areas in Maryland and Virginia lose out on money through statewide apportionments.

Chris Smith, with Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said many of the statewide funds are paid out on an annual basis, so the local transportation agencies in Fredericksburg, Winchester and elsewhere may be able to avoid significant impacts in the short-term. Since the state was only notified of the decision this morning, they are still working to figure out the complete impact.

The Federal Transit Administration said the funds would only be paid out when the new Metro Safety Commission is set up and certified. That requires not just the expected passage of the bills to establish the commission in Maryland and Virginia in coming weeks, but also approval from Congress for the interstate compact.

Smith said the Federal Transit Administration has been consulted throughout the process, so the region expects the commission will be certified as meeting federal requirements shortly after Congress approves it. The region would then have to hire staff and get the commission actually up and running which could take a few more months.

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