[Audio of Administrator Rogoff remarks (MP3)]
Today we really are celebrating a truly historic achievement. It has been since 1964 that the U.S. Department of Transportation has been prohibited by law from issuing even the most basic minimum common-sense safety standards for transit of any kind. That prohibition was put in law the same year that the Beatles flew over the Atlantic Ocean to come play on the Ed Sullivan show. I was four years old and [Representative] Donna Edwards wasn’t close to being born.
Importantly, let’s talk about what that prohibition has meant. That means since 1964 we have had a gaping loophole in transit safety oversight. In this area it means that if you take the MARC train or the VRE train into Union Station or L’Enfant Plaza and then transfer onto Washington Metro; you go from riding on a train that has been subject to voluminous federal safety standards with hundreds of inspectors all over the country onto a system that has no safety standards dictated by the federal government whatsoever. The same is true in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco and Los Angeles, and that’s a very important thing to remember. While we’re here talking about the Fort Totten crash, tragic as it was, this is not just a Washington D.C. issue. This is an issue about transit safety across America, and it has taken national legislators, like [Senator] Barbara Mikulski, [Senator] Ben Cardin, [and Representative] Donna Edwards, to step up, not just for this region, but for the entire country.
Immediately after the Fort Totten crash in 2009, Secretary LaHood tasked [Deputy Secretary] John Porcari with convening many of us around the department to really look at what the safety standards were and how they needed to be improved. The upshot of Secretary LaHood’s efforts was that in December 2009, President Obama instructed the Secretary to join with the Maryland delegation and transmit legislation to Congress calling for meaningful transit safety oversight for the federal government. It has taken awhile to get this done, and is a testament to the diligence of the Maryland delegation and a great many others on the Banking Committee in the Senate and elsewhere to make this happen. But what it means is that today, now that Congress has answered the call of the President and the Maryland delegation, we can finally ensure that the growing number of citizens that use transit every day will no longer be second-class citizens when it comes to federal safety oversight. This is a huge advance that’s taken close to half a century to bring about.
As I said it’s not just the Fort Totten crash that moved the President forward to transmit this legislation. We saw fires that were the source of concern on the Chicago transit system, we saw fatal crashes on the T system up in Boston, we saw unsafe practices that we were concerned about in streetcars in San Francisco, and similarly, it’s not just the riders that prompted President Obama to act, it was the people standing behind us: the workers. Working on an active rail line to keep transit service moving for the millions of passengers that use it every day is extraordinarily dangerous work. And we unfortunately experience fatalities among transit workers not only here at Washington Metro, but in other systems across the country.
These new safety standards are going to go a long way for better ensuring that transit is not just reliable and desirable, but safe. I also want to say a specific thank you to the National Transportation Safety Board and their leadership. National Transportation Safety Board for decades has been investigating transit accidents and transmitting recommendations to the Federal Transit Administration on what we should do. And far too often the answer that we had to send back is “we would love to do that, but we don’t have the statutory authority to actually implement the safety improvements that you recommend.” That ends today, and it has taken far too long to get here. I also want to make note of the fact that Secretary LaHood has given us the tools to hit the ground running on this initiative. Even before we had this legislative authority, two years ago he established a transit rail advisory committee for safety. That committee is going to be guiding our efforts; it’s made up of academic experts, it’s made up of safety experts, it’s made up of transit operators, it’s made up of transit overseers. They will be our guiding light in how we move out on this initiative. I also want to say importantly on behalf of the entire Federal Transit Administration that we are truly daunted and humbled by the new responsibility that President Obama, the Maryland delegation, the entire Congress has given us to stand up this important new initiative. As Deputy Secretary Porcari said: “we are going to save lives with this,” and we can’t do it soon enough.
So thank you all, thank you Maryland delegation for their leadership. I’d now like to introduce an outstanding safety advocate. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Chairwoman Debbie Hersman of the NTSB in prior assignments. She is a true leading national expert, not just on rail and transit safety but aviation safety, motor carrier safety, and a great many other areas. She’s a great leader in this effort for the nation.