WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senators from Maryland and Virginia – U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) – have introduced an amendment to the transportation bill being considered by the Senate to establish minimum safety standards for the operations of the nation’s aging transit systems and improve the way the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board is appointed.
While Congress has granted the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) the power to set safety standards for rail cars, FTA has not acted to set minimum safety standards in a number of other critical operational areas. The legislation would direct FTA to establish minimum safety standards for the following:
- evacuation procedures
- emergency preparedness training & coordination with local jurisdictions
- operational ventilation systems
- operational radio & public safety networks, with frequent testing
- training for roadway worker hazard mitigation
- implementation of train control systems to improve safe operation
- regular inspection programs for safe operation of track and mechanical systems
- signals, track and on-track equipment
- certification for vehicle operators and control center employees
- fitness-for-duty criteria for vehicle operators and control center employees
It would also grant FTA the emergency authority to compel action if the agency identifies a dangerous and unsafe situation on a transit system that could lead to death or personal injury.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), several deficiencies in these areas were implicated in the deadly smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza Metro station earlier this year. Yet in June, the NTSB also reported that numerous power-cable connections near Metro’s subway tracks are incorrectly installed, leaving them vulnerable to contaminants that could lead to a short-circuit that can produce smoke and fire within the system tunnels similar to that which occurred near L’Enfant Plaza on January 12. A FTA review released last month also identified significant and continuing concerns with Metro’s safety programs, offering 54 specific findings regarding concerns that include employee training and track time for necessary maintenance work.
The legislation would also make an important change to the way that individuals are selected to fill federal appointments to the Metro Board of Directors. Currently, the federal government’s two principal directors and two alternate directors on the Board are selected by the General Services Administration (GSA), an agency with no transportation mandate. The amendment would transfer this authority from GSA to the U.S. Department of Transportation in order to ensure that experts in transportation policy will be responsible for choosing who will represent the federal government on the Metro Board.
“Metro matters far too much to too many people to turn our backs on it. But too often we have seen the lack of oversight and basic safety standards at WMATA put lives at great risk,” said Sen. Cardin. “The federal government has a special responsibility to ensure safety is always the highest priority for our transit systems and the millions of commuters, residents, tourists, students and business people who rely on them. I know, and Metro riders know that there needs to be more focus on safety and accountability on our nation’s second busiest rapid transit system. This amendment moves Metro closer to where it should be to properly serve its ridership.”
“More than six months after the tragedy at L’Enfant Plaza, a number of federal agencies – including the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Government Accountability Office – have continued to identify numerous problems with Metro’s safety – some of them potentially life-threatening, and all of them troubling,” said Sen. Warner. “At this point, it’s obvious that the only way to turn Metro around is to start at the top. The system desperately needs strong leadership on the Board and a change agent as General Manager who will shake up the system and prioritize safety, accountability and transparency. It’s clear that, as Metro works to get its act together, the Federal Transit Administration also needs to put in place commonsense safety measures and ensure that riders can feel safe stepping onto a Metro train or bus.”
“Our amendment will make Metro safer for its riders and workers. It strengthens and expands the U.S. Department of Transportation’s authority to establish safety standards beyond the physical railcars to include the day-to-day operations of Metro,” said Sen. Mikulski. “I will not rest until Metro produces safety results. That’s why this amendment also gives the U.S. Transportation Secretary the authority to name federal representatives the Metro Board. We need strong leadership on the Board to attract strong leadership at Metro.”
“In recent months, tragic incidents and disturbing reports on Metro’s safety deficiencies have underscored the need for additional action,” said Sen. Kaine. “These new standards will give WMATA helpful guidance as it takes steps to improve its culture of safety. Furthermore, this would grant the Secretary of Transportation the authority to issue emergency orders to WMATA to immediately implement certain safety measures, which will help avoid dangerous situations and allow Metro employees to raise concerns about any shortcomings in safety practices. I am confident that this amendment will help WMATA as it works to improve the Metro system.”
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