Photo by atomicfamily on Flickr.

Imagine if Metro had to pay a fine for every safety standard violation.  What if Metro officials and operators lost licenses to work in transit if they repeatedly violated safety standards? 

These ideas could become reality if the FTA gains the ability to regulate public transit agencies.  And while many Washingtonians regard this as a no-brainer, there are serious concerns that few are considering in the post-Red Line Crash fear-mongering.

The standard argument in favor of FTA regulation is that regional safety oversight bodies are simply too unprepared and ill-equipped to assure safety on America’s transit systems. 

These bodies, like the Tri-State Oversight Committee which provides safety oversight of Metro, have little to no staff and no enforcement powers.  The DOT oversees safety on Amtrak, so why not subway and light-rail systems too?

While this standard argument is compelling, there has been little engagement with the counterargument to federal oversight of urban transit.  Consider the following concerns.

Urban rail is very safe: Subways and light rail are already very safe, safer by far than other modes of transportation that are regulated by the DOT including air travel.  One wonders then if improving on an already very low fatality rate should be a priority for federal dollars given the other more dangerous modes regulated by the DOT.

The TOC can be improved easily without federal intervention: The criticism leveled against the TOC is not directed at their competence, but at their lack of enforcement powers and funding.  So, instead of building a new federal agency, why not give the TOC enforcement powers and increased funding? 

TOC audit was actually better than the FTA audit of Metro: While it received little press attention, the TOC audit released earlier this month was more detailed and actionable than either the NTSB or FTA audits concerning the systemic safety hazards at Metro.

Federal urban rail regulation may be unconstitutional: Federal regulation of urban transit systems may ultimately be overturned by the courts.  The Commerce Clause of the Constitution limits federal regulation to interstate commerce, and most urban transit systems don’t cross state lines like Metro does. 

NTSB previously opposed FTA oversight of urban rail: Every urban transit system is very different, despite appearances to the contrary.  Unlike other transit modes regulated by DOT which share a common network, urban transit systems develop independently according to unique needs and constraints.  The NTSB argued in the 90s that this was reason enough to support the regional system of safety oversight in place today. 

For these reasons, I would strongly oppose FTA regulation of Metro and other urban transit agencies if not for one prominent benefit that would result from FTA regulation:

FTA can balance NTSB: While the NTSB serves a valuable role in transportation safety, they are an exclusively reactive organization by statute.  Unfortunately, the political pressure to implement any and all NTSB recommendations is overwhelming.  This undermines attempts to create a proactive safety organization

The USDOT, which requires transportation providers to take a more proactive approach to safety, balances the NTSB in the transport modes that it regulates.  This balance will never be provided by the TOC or other regional safety oversight bodies.

I am honestly on the fence on this critical issue.  While the answer to this issue seems obvious to many, I suspect that the damning of all things Metro since the Red Line Crash is undermining the healthy debate that this issue deserves. 

The Obama administration supports a bill that would give the FTA this power, but Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has put a hold on the bill in the Senate for many of the reasons listed here, as well as the lack of offsetting spending cuts or taxes in the legislation.

What do you think?  Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?