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Late Friday evening, the US Secretary of Transportation announced an immediate federal takeover of WMATA safety oversight.
The takeover gives federal officials authority to inspect Metro at will, and to order Metro employees to address safety problems. WMATA will still manage normal train operations.
Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Congress transfer oversight of WMATA from the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
However, the FRA typically manages freight railroads, long distance trains, and commuter rail (like MARC and VRE), and has no experience with a transit agency like WMATA. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx worried giving oversight to FRA would be more disruptive than a direct takeover by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which already has the statutory authority for a safety takeover.
With Foxx’s blessing, that’s what will happen. Effective immediately, the FTA is in charge of Metro safety.
The move is unprecedented. FTA has never taken over the safety oversight role from a local State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA), like the TOC. But given Metro’s repeated lapses, and the inability of the TOC to enforce change, USDOT believes this is the best alternative.
Details are still scarce. But the FTA will have authority to enforce corrective actions. This should mean that WMATA won’t be able to ignore safety directives, as they do with the TOC.
This move is only temporary. The FTA will relinquish control when DC, Maryland, and Virginia create a new SSOA which actually has teeth and can effectively enforce safety changes. Since the FTA has never played this role before, it is unclear if this oversight will be a success.
Beginning with the 2009 train crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people, Metro has suffered several major safety lapses, including a smoke incident in January that killed another passenger.
This takeover is the sort of shake up of WMATA management that could lead to real change in the organization’s culture, and hopefully improve WMATA safety. On the other hand, it could also further impede the agency from making nimble changes that could benefit riders. Only the future will tell.