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Federal Transit Administration Updates Congress on WMATA Metrorail Safety Oversight; More than 100 Inspections, Millions in Federal Funds Directed to Safety Priorities

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) reported to Congress that it has conducted more than 100 inspections and directed millions in Federal funds to support safety priorities in its first six months of temporary safety oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) Metrorail system. FTA Senior Advisor Carolyn Flowers testified before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform panel; below are excerpts from her written testimony.

“In a short time, FTA has provided more thorough safety oversight over WMATA than it has ever received,” Flowers stated.  “We all want Metrorail safety to improve and we want change now.”

In October 2015, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx instructed FTA to assume direct and temporary safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail from the ineffective Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC).  This role continues only until Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia set up a new State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA) – something the three jurisdictions have been discussing since April 2010.

“We are now in April of 2016, and very little action has taken place to move towards a fully functioning SSOA. It is long past time for Virginia, Maryland, and DC to create a new safety oversight body for WMATA Metrorail,” Flowers said.

Flowers explained that WMATA is responsible for the safe operation of the Metrorail system, including the performance of daily inspections and preventative maintenance.  The current and temporary role of FTA is to verify WMATA’s progress on implementing Corrective Action Plans and remedial actions, and to ensure that WMATA is effectively carrying out its own critical maintenance, operations, and safety training programs, until the three jurisdictions set up a new SSOA.

In the six month period from October 2015 to April 2016, the FTA WMATA Safety Oversight Office has conducted 107 inspections that cover track, the Rail Operations Control Center, vehicle and systems maintenance, automatic train control, and traction power.  During these inspections, FTA identified 229 defects requiring WMATA to implement 66 remedial actions.

FTA is currently in the midst of a three-part safety blitz focused on red signal overruns, track integrity and rail vehicle securement.  A final report of this safety blitz is expected to be made public in early summer 2016.

FTA is also leading WMATA accident investigations as warranted and working to close out more than 100 open accident investigation reports it assumed from the TOC. 

FTA is exercising its authority to direct WMATA’s use of Federal funds to prioritize safety projects and purposes, particularly in support of the corrective actions arising from the FTA Safety Management Inspection conducted in the spring of 2015, safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and state of good repair infrastructure improvements. For example, FTA is requiring that WMATA hold in reserve $20 million in FY 2016 Federal funds for urgent safety issues that may arise, rather than expending those funds on two non-safety related projects as WMATA originally requested. 

Furthermore, Flowers said that until Virginia, Maryland and DC create a new State Safety Oversight Agency, FTA is the best and most appropriate agency to provide temporary Federal safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail.

“We have the knowledge, expertise and enforcement powers to do the job. Our current safety rulemaking framework provides us with the authority to take action that will protect the safety of transit riders and workers in our Nation’s Capital and elsewhere in the country,” she stressed.  “With WMATA, FTA is fulfilling the short-term need while at the same time requiring the development of an effective State Safety Oversight Agency.”

The U.S. Congress first granted FTA the authority to oversee the safety of public transportation with the passage of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012. Previous to this, Congress authorized transit safety oversight at the state level beginning with the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991, pursuant to the NTSB’s recommendation in a report entitled Safety Study: Oversight of Rail Rapid Transit Safety

In 2015, Congress strengthened FTA safety oversight with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST), by providing explicit authority for FTA to assume the role of a non-functioning State Safety Oversight Agency, on a temporary and expedient basis, and clarifying FTA’s ability to withhold FTA financial assistance or direct the use of federal funding for safety purposes.  

A copy of the full written testimony can be found here.

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Updated: Wednesday, April 13, 2016
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