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Should the FTA regulate urban transit agencies?

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?

Photo by atomicfamily on Flickr.

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?

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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Unless I misunderstood, the FTA would be regulating all urban transit agencies, not just urban rail agencies, so the 'urban rail is safe' is a very narrow argument against a broad regulation. I don't have an opinion on the merits of the proposal, but let's at least talk accurately about it before we debate it.

by Allison on Oct 29, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

The main problem with FTA oversight is that it risks prioritizing the FTA's opinion of safety over the local cost-benefit balance that also includes the cost and practicality of safety measures.

What if FTA safety mandates make transit unaffordable so that commuters switch from extraordinarily safe subways to less-safe highways? The FTA will pat itself on the back, since their statutory mandate is to maximize transit safety regardless of how those regulations impact the entire transportation system.

Furthermore, safety is really a spectrum; where our safety standards should be set on that spectrum should be up to locally elected officials, not to the FTA. Local elected officials better reflect the public's opinion on the right balance between safety, cost, and practicality. These matters of local priorities are too important to hand over to a Federal agency.

(P.S. The interstate commerce argument is weak since the Supreme Court has ruled that nearly everything is interstate commerce, even if it doesn't involve commerce or another state. Also, the Feds could just attach onerous FTA oversight as a condition to receiving any Federal money for transportation. That's how the Feds set the drinking age to 21.)

by Eric Fidler on Oct 29, 2010 11:55 am • linkreport

No. I don't see why the Federal Government should be involved in what (in most cases) is a purely local concern. I don't see the compelling Federal interest here.

by ChrisW on Oct 29, 2010 12:12 pm • linkreport

Hmm. I remember Coburn taking a few licks from the GGW community a few months ago on this issue. Glad saner minds are prevailing.

The interstate thing is actually quite large, and I wouldn't go around quoting drug cases to establish the reach of the commerce clause.

The fear about FTA pushing people into highways is way overblown. A few terror threats like yesterday are far more effective...

That being said, the limited scope of this bill (only WMATA) and the lack of need for federal oversight should kill it. However, a good stick to hit WMATA with on safety issues.

by charlie on Oct 29, 2010 12:34 pm • linkreport

I wouldn't go around quoting drug cases to establish the reach of the commerce clause.
Ok, how about a case involving growing your own wheat to feed your own chickens? How about two cases that applied Federal labor regulations to state government.

Though I disagree with these rulings, they are a settled matter of law.

by Eric Fidler on Oct 29, 2010 1:12 pm • linkreport

Go back to con law for refresh. Good can be regulated if part of a scheme. Not metro systems -- necessarily.

Other than SEPTA, I can't think of another multi-state system. Bill of attainder?

by charlie on Oct 29, 2010 1:29 pm • linkreport


Transit system, or agency? There are lots:

In New York, PATH operates across state lines. Metro North services do as well in both NJ (Port Jervis line) and Connecticut (New Haven line).

MBTA commuter rail service crosses into Rhode Island.

The South Shore line in Chicago crosses the Illinois-Indiana border. Likewise, Metra has service to Kenosha, WI.

Granted, those are all commuter operations - but so are SEPTA's services that cross state lines. Philly also has the PATCO Speedline.

I'm not sure what oversight rules apply, to be honest. I know PATH is actually under FRA regulation, but I don't think PATCO is.

by Alex B. on Oct 29, 2010 1:50 pm • linkreport

Unless I misunderstood, the FTA would be regulating all urban transit agencies, not just urban rail agencies

The bill, introduced in the Senate in July, directs the FTA to regulate any "rail fixed guideway public transportation system...that is not subject to regulation by the Federal Railroad Administration". I think maybe an earlier version permitted, but didn't direct, the FTA to regulate bus safety, according to this APTA briefing from March.

by Ken Archer on Oct 29, 2010 1:52 pm • linkreport

"Other than SEPTA, I can't think of another multi-state system."

- Metrolink (St. Louis light rail) crosses river from MO to IL
- PATCO crosses river from PA to NJ
- PATH crosses river from NJ to NY

by intermodal commuter on Oct 29, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

Commuter rail systems in the United States are already regulated by the FRA regardless of whether they cross state lines.

In SEPTA's case, the only rail service they operate out of state is commuter rail.

There are, however, a few transit systems that do cross state lines.

  • Washington Metro [HRT] (DC, MD, VA)
  • St. Louis MetroLink [LRT] (MO, IL)
  • Philadelphia PATCO [HRT] (PA, NJ)
  • PATH [HRT] (NJ, NY) - actually regulated by FRA for historical reasons
  • Portland MAX [LRT] (OR, WA) - planned extension of Yellow Line to Vancouver, WA

by Matt Johnson on Oct 29, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

The main problem with FTA oversight is that it risks prioritizing the FTA's opinion of safety over the local cost-benefit balance that also includes the cost and practicality of safety measures.

I share your concern. For example, at the outset of the bill is this concerning indication.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, more than 1⁄3 of the assets of the largest rail transit systems in the United States are in either marginal or poor condition, and the estimated maintenance backlog for public transportation systems is nearly $80,000,000,000, contributing to unsafe conditions for passengers and workers.
That reminds me of NTSB's insistence that Metro remove all 1000 series trains from commission instantly, regardless of the number of passengers doing so would put into cars.

On the other hand, the NTSB, and the enormous political pressure to say how high when they say jump, is already pushing their own reactive view of safety onto Metro.

At least the FTA's audit of Metro following the Red Line Crash was much more comprehensive and systematic, allowing Metro to set the right cost-benefit balance as long as it did so based on data from a thorough hazard management system. The main reason to support FTA regulation is that they would insulate Metro from the NTSB.

Furthermore, the bill allows regional safety oversight bodies to regulate their agencies instead of the FTA, as long as they are given enforcement powers and the FTA thinks they are effective. So, we could still have the TOC instead of the FTA if the bill passes, but we would need to invest heavily in the TOC and give them enforcement powers.

As I say, I am very much on the fence.

by Ken Archer on Oct 29, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

I support FTA regulation, but like every other regulatory process, it will need strengthening and full transparency, and of course a budget adequate for inspection, with real penalties for violations. The Metro and mass transit in general is surely safer than car commuter traffic, but Metro has obvious deficiencies that must be addressed. Today's Washington Post, not my favorite source of political endorsements (proud to be dis-endorsed in the company of Mary Cheh, Phil Mendelson and Harry Thomas Jr.), highlighted the culture of repression now prevailing in Metro, and the common safety problems witnessed by the employees. And since I am commenting I might as well make a plug for my own candidacy, DC City Council At-Large, DC Statehood Green Party. I am an environmental scientist (Howard University Professor) with Green Justice solutions to many of the challenges you raised in this blog.
Please check out my website:

Best wishes,
David Schwartzman

by David Schwartzman on Oct 29, 2010 3:37 pm • linkreport

Ultimately I think the question of federal regulation of transit becomes a question of whether it's possible to create a uniform set of safety standards that can fairly and realistically be applied at the national level. More importantly, administrative oversight, which already arguably occurs, is not going to change any of the real safety issues. Changing who is in charge actually does very little in terms of direct safety impacts considering that priorities often have a systemic root. Inevitably, we end up coming back to the question of the physical plant. You know, the trains and the tracks.

The problem is that every public transit system is different, and the bigger the system, the more apparent that is. Buses are already at least somewhat nationally regulated, at least in terms of general design features.

The real question is rail transit, and this is where things get messy. The multitude of signaling systems, car designs, platform heights, track gauges, automation, etc. is just absolutely non-uniform. Making America's entire rail public transit system compatible to a single set of regulatory guidelines is beyond expensive.

Simply put, it's impossible. The best bet would be national oversight of transit management, but here I see a huge problem - most of the safety problems come down to what's 18 inches from the train controls, not what's sitting behind a desk. The 2008 Metrolink disaster, numerous cases of driving subway trains while texting, and other risky behaviors, mean that adding another level of oversight at the top might not be the best way to go. A more direct approach is needed at the local level.

by Aaron Z. on Nov 1, 2010 1:03 am • linkreport

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