Transportation bill sets first federal transit safety standards

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Photo - Congress is expected on Friday to approve a transportation bill that would adopt federal safety standards for transportation agencies like Metro. (Examiner file photo)
Congress is expected on Friday to approve a transportation bill that would adopt federal safety standards for transportation agencies like Metro. (Examiner file photo)
Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metro will have to meet the nation's first federal safety standards for transit agencies under a compromise transportation bill expected to be approved by Congress Friday.

The language in the massive reauthorization package would give the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, authority to set minimum standards for rail cars and establish national safety training programs, while improving existing state oversight bodies.

The new standards were inspired by the safety failures of Metro, most dramatically in June 2009, when two trains crashed outside the Fort Totten station less than six miles from the Capitol, killing nine people and injuring about 80. Subways are the country's only transportation systems that currently do not have to meet federal safety standards.

Increased federal transit benefits cut from transportation bill
A federal transit benefit that tens of thousands of Metro riders rely upon will not be restored to higher levels in the transportation bill that Congress is expected to approve Friday.
The benefit, which riders can receive outright or as a pretax paycheck deduction, had been raised to up to $230 per month as part of the stimulus package to match parking benefits. But on Jan. 1, it dropped back to a maximum of $125 per month.
The Senate had called for raising the transit portion to match the $240 given for parking, but the House version didn't include it. It was lost amid the compromises, according to the joint explanatory summary.
Locally, it could be a big hit. Virginia Railway Express has attributed a dip in ridership to the reduction in benefits. Metro forecast in December that it would cause Metrorail ridership to drop 2.8 percent. As of Thursday, though, General Manager Richard Sarles said he hadn't seen enough analysis to know how it is affecting Metro.
Even so, the lower levels will become especially relevant in coming days as Metro is jacking up fares starting Sunday. - Kytja Weir

"The lack of minimum federal safety requirements for transit vehicles was a glaring loophole in federal law, and one that had tragic consequences in our region in the 2009 Red Line crash," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "Under this legislation, the FTA will finally have the authority it needs to ensure that transit, like every other mode of transportation, meets a uniform benchmark for safety."

Federal safety standards were proposed in the months after the deadly crash. But they have gone through various iterations, failing as stand-alone legislation and when tacked onto various bills.

This time, they are attached to a new compromise bill that outlines transportation funding for all modes of transportation around the country, after a series of stopgap bills since the last reauthorization bill expired on Sept. 30, 2009.

"That is perhaps the only real breakthrough in the bill, and it is a huge one," D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said.

The inclusion of the National Public Transportation Safety Plan appears to be a victory for the local congressional delegation, which pushed for the measure. "We are the poster child for what happens with no safety standards," she added.

She said the deal involved compromise, as Republicans sought to have state oversight, not full federal control of the regulatory process. But she welcomed the standards as "invaluable."

Metro officials were still reviewing the language Thursday to see how it would affect the transit agency.

"We welcome oversight and that includes federal oversight," General Manager Richard Sarles said. "We have no objection to them identifying the problems areas."

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kytja Weir

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner