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Safety Board Urges Federal Oversight Over D.C. Metro

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued two urgent recommendations that the Washington, D.C., Metro system be placed under federal oversight in the wake of safety issues.  

“There is now a lack of independent safety oversight of Metrorail,’’ NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said in a statement Wednesday. “This is an unacceptable gap in system safety.” In its recommendations, NTSB is urging the Department of Transportation to alter the definition of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority so the Federal Railroad Administration can "exercise direct safety oversight." NTSB also asked the DOT to develop a transition plan to shift oversight from the current body known as the Tri-State Oversight Committee to the FRA within six months.  

In its letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the NTSB said Congress's work on a highway and transit bill "provides an opportunity" for a change in the legal definition of Washington's Metro to a commuter authority, which would place it under Federal Railroad Administration oversight.  

"The Department of Transportation is exploring all options to improve this record, including a range of approaches that will allow us to directly increase federal safety oversight of Metro," said a DOT spokesperson when asked about the report. "We will take this NTSB recommendation into consideration during this process."  

A Transportation Department spokeswoman said such a change would require action from Congress.  

NTSB is arguing that TOC "lacks the power to issue orders or levy fines and has no regulatory or enforcement authority." The recommendations come as NTSB is continuing to investigate a fatal incident near the L'Enfant Metro stop in January, when one passenger died and dozens more were hospitalized after being trapped in a smoke-filled railcar.  

NTSB officials argued that the FRA, which oversees passenger, freight and commuter railroads, has the regulatory power to more adequately address WMATA's safety issues.  

“The FRA has rules today. The TOC has none. The FRA has hundreds of highly trained professional railroad inspectors. The TOC has no inspectors,” said Hart.  

The safety issues have drawn the ire of members of Congress who represent the National Capital Region, who have emphasized that it is time for a permanent general manager and other changes at the top.  

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., told CQ Roll Call Wednesday afternoon she had not yet read the report, but clearly it was time for a change at WMATA.  

“First of all, WMATA needs the money as promised, but WMATA needs new leadership. WMATA needs a turnaround artist to really take it over, an operating engineer to really bring about safety concerns," Mikuslki said. "And I also think we need a new chairman of the board. I think [Mortimer] Downey has served the nation well. And now with these ethical charges and others, it’s time for a change.”  

The Washington Post reported in July that Downey faced questions about the contract of a former employee who was hired as a consultant.  

The junior senator from Maryland also believed the report signified a need for change at the transit agency, but hesitated to fully endorse the transition.  

“The current structure is not providing the accountability and direction we need," Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin told CQ Roll Call Wednesday. "I think there needs to be a federal responsibility here. I’m not opposed to that. This is the nation’s transit system. But I want to make sure that the local governments have an adequate input. So I’m not going to sign off totally on everything but it certainly needs a shakeup.”  

Another local lawmaker appeared to signal that he would support the transition.  

“The NTSB’s findings and recommendations, coupled with those from other federal investigations, demonstrate that Metro is facing monumental challenges that it cannot face alone," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., who also called for a permanent general manager. "The fortunes of the federal government and Metro are inherently linked. The federal government must play a more active role in providing the necessary oversight and resources to address these challenges."  

Members of Congress have kept a close eye on Metro as safety and service questions have rankled the system. Lawmakers questioned officials about its viability at a hearing in July , with one lawmaker suggesting the transit agency should be privatized. Lawmakers from the region are also pushing to fully restore WMATA funding , which is facing a $50 million cut in the House appropriations bill.  

Related: Senators: Metro Safety Important Enough to Micro-Manage Lawmaker Threatens to Strip WMATA of Management