Metro Safety Commission closer to taking over rail oversight

WASHINGTON — The Metro Safety Commission is moving closer to taking back local oversight of the rail system’s safety from the Federal Transit Administration.

In a memo Thursday, the FTA laid out the steps needed for the new commission to take over lead oversight responsibilities.

The commission could submit its application package to the FTA this month, which commissioners previously said would allow for federal certification ahead of a nationwide April deadline for the establishment of local state safety oversight agencies.

“FTA is ready to initiate the formal transition process and the MSC is nearing completion of the work it needs to do before the process can begin,” FTA Executive Director Matthew J. Welbes said in a statement.

After the certification application is submitted, the process will involve two main steps.

First, a letter of acknowledgment from the FTA will trigger a transition period where Metro Safety Commission staff will shadow FTA inspectors and investigators to see how the federal oversight is working. Later, FTA staff plan to shadow MSC staff to be sure the commission can fully function as required.

There is no fixed timeline for the transition, since it is based on staffing levels and other standards to be set by the commission.

Once the FTA approves the application and validates that the commission can do its job, the final step will be formal certification of the commission.

The FTA has already begun “pre-transition activities” like briefings on how the federal oversight has operated and other issues within the Metro system.

The FTA took over direct control of safety oversight at Metro in late 2015 after a series of safety failures. Before that, the toothless Tri-State Oversight Commission had issues reports to Metro, but had no enforcement power.

The new Metro Safety Commission was first promised nearly a decade ago, but is only now being established by the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The commission has the power to direct Metro to spend money on specific safety projects and, in the most extreme circumstances, to order that all or part of the system be shut down.

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said Thursday that he has met several times with the commissioners and safety commission Executive Director David Mayer to ensure clear communication and understanding.

“We just want to make sure that we’re just transparent, [that] we give them what they need. We don’t want to risk any issues going down the road, so the sooner we create relationships with them, that’s good,” Wiedefeld said in an interview.

“They’re going to be a regulatory agency, they have a job to do and they should do it; [we] have no issue with that, we just want to make sure the communication is there,” he added.

While Metro does not play a direct role in submitting the application for certification of the independent commission, Wiedefeld emphasized the importance of getting it done on time to avoid the loss of federal money for Metro and all other transit agencies in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

“It’s great that they’re coming out with a strategy going forward to achieve it,” Wiedefeld said.

The Federal Transit Administration has separately been withholding other money from Maryland, Virginia and the District until the commission is certified.

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