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The feds are taking over WMATA safety, which is unprecedented

Late Friday evening, the US Secretary of Transportation announced an immediate federal takeover of WMATA safety oversight.

Boss pointing image from Shutterstock.

The takeover gives federal officials authority to inspect Metro at will, and to order Metro employees to address safety problems. WMATA will still manage normal train operations.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that Congress transfer oversight of WMATA from the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

However, the FRA typically manages freight railroads, long distance trains, and commuter rail (like MARC and VRE), and has no experience with a transit agency like WMATA. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx worried giving oversight to FRA would be more disruptive than a direct takeover by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which already has the statutory authority for a safety takeover.

With Foxx's blessing, that's what will happen. Effective immediately, the FTA is in charge of Metro safety.

The move is unprecedented. FTA has never taken over the safety oversight role from a local State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA), like the TOC. But given Metro's repeated lapses, and the inability of the TOC to enforce change, USDOT believes this is the best alternative.

Details are still scarce. But the FTA will have authority to enforce corrective actions. This should mean that WMATA won't be able to ignore safety directives, as they do with the TOC.

This move is only temporary. The FTA will relinquish control when DC, Maryland, and Virginia create a new SSOA which actually has teeth and can effectively enforce safety changes. Since the FTA has never played this role before, it is unclear if this oversight will be a success.

Beginning with the 2009 train crash near Fort Totten that killed nine people, Metro has suffered several major safety lapses, including a smoke incident in January that killed another passenger.

This takeover is the sort of shake up of WMATA management that could lead to real change in the organization's culture, and hopefully improve WMATA safety. On the other hand, it could also further impede the agency from making nimble changes that could benefit riders. Only the future will tell.


The feds to WMATA: You've got big problems, and you have to fix them

The Federal Transit Administration came down hard on WMATA today, deeming the agency deficient in both how it manages itself on the whole and, more specifically, how it operates its trains and buses. As a result, WMATA will need to make some serious changes, and fast.

Image from SP8254 on Flickr.

System-wide, FTA inspectors cited 54 overall safety violations: 44 for Metrorail and 10 for Metrobus. The deficiencies come despite efforts to step up the agency-wide commitment to safety that followed the fatal 2009 Red Line crash at Fort Totten.

Chief among the problem areas is that Metrorail's Rail Operations Control Center is both understaffed and doing a poor job of immediately fixing safety hazards as well as managing routine maintenance projects.

Other issues include:

  • The Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) is understaffed.
  • Rail Traffic Controllers have not been regularly recertified/retrained as required.
  • The ROCC has a high level of noise and distraction.
  • Radio discipline is poor.
  • ROCC lacks formal procedures, manuals, and checklists.
  • Rail Traffic Controllers use their cell phones while on duty.
  • WMATA faces challenges in hiring and training qualified Controllers.
  • Rail Traffic Controller training is inadequate.
  • Accident investigations do not look at the ROCC's actions, just those of the train operator.
  • Radio coverage remains poor in some areas.
  • There is not enough time for maintenance during overnight hours.
  • WMATA has reduced trackwork windows to cut back on customer dissatisfaction.
  • The lack of trackwork time is contributing to a backlog of maintenance.
  • Track worker protection training is not occurring as required.
  • WMATA doesn't have a strategy for emergency response training.
  • Rules compliance checks are not performed often enough or with regularity as required.
  • Not all issues with the ATC (signal) system are being communicated to maintenance.
  • The ATC department is understaffed.
  • Critical parts are not always kept in stock.
  • Not enough is being done to reduce fire/smoke issues in tunnels.
What WMATA's got to do

As a result of the findings the FTA is issuing a safety directive to WMATA that outlines how to fix each violation and requests updates to the 2016 budget to account for funding the necessary changes.

Also, in line with a recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board that followed January's Yellow Line tragedy, State Safety Oversight Agencies will inspect Metro's tunnel ventilation systems, and the FTA will give WMATA further instruction based on the findings.

WMATA has 30 days to respond to the report with additional information. During this time, WMATA may suggest equivalent, alternative actions. Within 31 to 90 days of the report, WMATA must submit a plan for taking action.

Starting immediately, WMATA and FTA leaders will meet monthly until the FTA determines the meetings are no longer necessary or can be less frequent.


With federal approval in hand, the pieces needed to build the Purple Line fall into place

The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.

This just got one stop closer to reality. Image from Montgomery County.

Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.

The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.

With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.

Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.

"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."


The Purple Line gets a boost from President Obama's budget

Yesterday, the Purple Line took a big step forward when the federal government recommended giving it a $100 million grant for next year and providing additional funding in the coming years. Now, all it needs is approval from Congress.

Image from the Maryland Transit Administration.

President Obama included the $2.2 billion, 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in his 2015 budget. It's one of 7 transit projects the Federal Transit Administration recommended for a "New Starts" grant, including the Baltimore Red Line, an extension of LA's Purple Line, Boston's Green Line extension, the Columbia River Crossing in Portland, and commuter rail in Orlando and Fort Worth.

The agency also recommended Congress give the Purple Line a "full funding grant agreement" committing it to help pay for construction. Maryland hopes the federal government will provide $900 million, though it's unclear what the final amount will be.

The state has already agreed to put in up to $900 million for the project. Montgomery and Prince George's counties will give $220 million total, while the state is looking for a private partner to build and operate the line and pitch in additional funds.

The Purple Line has been discussed in some form since 1986. If everything goes right, it could start construction in 2015 and open in 2020. But getting here hasn't been easy.

From the beginning, it faced vehement opposition from the exclusive Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, because the line would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a former freight rail line that bisected its golf course. Meanwhile, the University of Maryland didn't want it passing through the heart of campus, and even hired former Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan (now running for a fourth term) to oppose it.

Maryland was able to find a workable solution for both parties, and the Purple Line now enjoys the support of both county executives, elected officials in both counties, and hundreds of civic, environmental, business, and advocacy groups.

But there are still a few challenges remaining. One is that Congress actually has to approve President Obama's budget and decide how much the "full funding grant agreement" for the Purple Line would be. The other is the Town of Chevy Chase, which continues to oppose the project because of its impacts on the trail. The town recently hired a lobbyist who happens to be the brother of the House transportation committee chair to make the case against the line.

Meanwhile, other residents may sue the government because they feel not enough research has been done about the Purple Line's impacts on a small, shrimp-like creature that's listed as an endangered species but is found several miles away. These things may add additional delay to the Purple Line, but it's unclear whether they're enough to actually halt the project.

In any case, yesterday was a great day for the Purple Line. When I attended my first Purple Line meeting in 2003, as a junior in high school, I assumed that I'd be riding it by now. Hopefully, 28 years after the project was first announced, we won't have to wait much longer.


Columbia Pike streetcar may still get federal funding

Arlington's plans to use federal funding for the Columbia Pike streetcar hit a snag recently, when the project was not accepted into the FTA's Small Starts grant program. Streetcar opponents took this news as a sign that the project is in trouble, but it's not.

Photo by cliff1066™ on Flickr.

The FTA isn't turning down the project permanently. They are requesting changes and suggesting Arlington reapply later this year. Federal rules changed with last year's MAP-21 transportation bill, and so Arlington has to apply under the larger New Starts program instead of Small Starts.

The delay is good, anyway. Another new rule is that once a project is accepted into New Starts, construction has to begin within 2 years. Even if it had won funding this year, Arlington is 3 years away from construction, so next year is the right time to apply in any case.

County Board chairman Walter Tejada confirmed at a board meeting last night that county leaders are still committed to funding and building the streetcar.

It's not really $410 million

Some reports erroneously claim the that FTA turned down the streetcar because it thinks the project will cost $410 million. That's not what happened, explained Arlington transit bureau chief Steven DelGiudice.

The FTA's report on Columbia Pike does cite a $410 million figure, but that isn't for the cost of the streetcar. Instead, it's an insurance figure that shows the worst-case scenario, if everything imaginable were to go wrong. It shows the streetcar cost, plus the cost of other tangential projects nearby, plus a $70 million contingency figure in case of overruns.

What sort of tangential projects? Things like 12th Street in Pentagon City. 12th Street doesn't exist right now. A private developer will build it as part of a skyscraper development, regardless of whether or not there is ever a streetcar.

Once 12th Street is there, it will be a convenient place to put the streetcar. But since Arlington plans to run the streetcar down a street that isn't built yet, FTA's rules say the total has to include all of the street's costs—even though all of the money comes from a developer. FTA assumes that if the development is delayed, the county might have to build the road itself.

The total cost also has to show an insurance contingency for those tangential projects, like 12th Street. Double whammy. FTA also recommended that the county increase its contingency fund from 18 to 35%.

There are a few new costs the FTA identified that will probably increase the budget. They anticipate very heavy ridership on the route, and recommended that the county look at a larger vehicle to meet these capacity demands.

The result is a slightly higher real cost figure, and another paper figure that's way bigger than what the project will actually cost to build. FTA knows it won't really be $410 million. In fact, their cost range says $255 million is just as likely, with the probable cost somewhere in between.

Because the rules of Small Starts require including everything and cap projects at $250 million, the streetcar project has to go under a different program. The Small Starts program is for small, low-cost, particularly easy-to-accomplish projects. Most new rail lines, and many large BRT lines, go through the New Starts program instead.

Since the New Starts program is larger, that also means that the project can get more total dollars of federal funding. The statute allows FTA to provide up to 80% of the funds for a project, but because there are more projects applying than available funding, the federal share is more likely 50%.

The chances of getting New Starts funding are good

According DelGiudice, the FTA's report is very positive for the streetcar and affirms the county's projections.

FTA believes the ridership will be strong, and even suggested Arlington increase the capacity of the streetcar with more cars and a bigger railyard. That shows FTA believes this is a good place for rail transit.

Despite not being accepted into the Small Starts program this year, FTA's report on Columbia Pike is actually very good news and shows the FTA thinks it's a strong project. Arlington can reapply under the larger program, and since they're 3 years away from construction anyway, doing so is not even a delay.

The decision ultimately lies with the County Board to choose whether to apply under New Starts, but if they do, the streetcar project stands a good chance of winning approval next year.


Did the FTA have leeway on the 11th Street bridge?

FTA administrator Peter Rogoff and his PR team are disputing Thursday's story on streetcar tracks on the 11th Street bridge. In that article, I wrote, "The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway." It's become even more clear that that indeed is the fundamental question.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

In an op-ed on the Washington Post's All Opinions are Local, Rogoff makes two main points. First, he says that by federal law, FTA had to stop the tracks once they learned about the issue. And second, echoing the statement his communications team put out on Friday, he says FTA gave DDOT several options for including tracks by redoing or modifying environmental reviews.

The second point is mostly irrelevant; DDOT was too far along in the bridge project to reopen the environmental reviews by the time that happened in July of this year. But the first point is indeed the key question. Rogoff says FTA had no leeway. So far, all of the transportation professionals I have spoken with argue that they did.

The options FTA gave DDOT

Let's start with the 2nd claim, that FTA gave DDOT plenty of options in July. The 3 options, according to Brian Farber, Associate Administrator from the Office of Communications and Congressional Affairs, were:

  1. To reopen the FHWA EIS document and evaluate streetcar for the bridge.
  2. To conduct an expedited FTA EA and evaluate streetcar on the bridge.
  3. To extend the northern terminus of the current Historic Anacostia FTA EA to include the 11th Street bridge, and evaluate streetcar from the Anacostia Metro station to the western terminus of the bridge.
In this July 28 letter, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy tells FTA that they've decided to take the tracks off the project, as a result of a meeting a month earlier where USDOT officials "stated that because streetcar infrastructure was not included in the record of decision for [the EIS], it could not be included as part of the bridge construction."

However, this is all happening while the bridge has long been under construction. Work began in December 2009. According to several people familiar with the bridge project, DDOT at this point faced two unpleasant choices: pull the tracks off the bridge, or start an environmental process that could take years.

Besides the extensive public participation process that would have been required, the bridge EIS had drawn a lawsuit for the way it added cross-river vehicular capacity while claiming it didn't. Personally, I agreed with the opponents and think DDOT made a mistake doing the bridge this way. Adding the "missing link" may well draw vehicle trips through the region off the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and into DC.

But that's water under the bridge, as it were, and now that the bridge is half built, it doesn't seem wise of DDOT to reopen all those cans of worms. I'm skeptical it would best "save taxpayer monies in the long run" to delay work while a long EIS occurs, and potentially incur huge penalties from the contractor if the EIS takes very long, as it likely would.

People familiar with the discussions (including additional people beyond those I spoke to for the original story) confirm the basic truth of what I reported. Unfortunately, everyone is very reluctant to be quoted publicly. Transportation professionals will inevitably have to work with federal agencies. They don't want to raise the ire of FTA and imperil other projects.

Did FTA have leeway?

All of the options FTA offered involved not putting the tracks on the bridge until after further environmental review. If FTA really felt they had absolutely no choice, then what they did was best. They stopped DDOT as they had to, but they gave DDOT various (unpalatable) alternatives.

But did they have to? I spoke to several transportation professionals who feel FTA could have let the tracks go forward, or at least let DC finish them with local dollars. Commenter Will P (who is familiar with the situation) agreed, writing:

DC had the ability and planned to pay for the rails on the bridge with local money. What FTA is saying is that if DC chose to put in the rails on the Bridge before their mandated studies, they would then be disqualified from getting federal dollars for segments that would connect to the Bridge.
I've asked FTA's media relations folks to further explain the issue from FTA's standpoint, but they aren't experts on federal law, either, and haven't yet gotten back to me with specifics.

This is an unusual situation because the key decision point is coming not during the early design phases or during bidding, but after the project has long been underway. According to people familiar with the process, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had signed off on project documents which did include the streetcars. These include early construction documents and also "Plans, Specifications & Estimates" (PS&E) reports.

Here's the core of the timeline, as best as I can understand it from talking to numerous people:

  1. DDOT completed an EIS for the bridge that included "accommodation" of transit but was vague about what transit exactly would be included. The EIS won an award from FHWA for its public process.
  2. DDOT prepared to build the project with mostly local dollars. They decided to include tracks to save money in the future on the streetcar network.
  3. DDOT switched to use mostly federal money on the project. They were working with FHWA. The construction documents and intermediate PS&Es signed off on by FHWA included the tracks.
  4. At some point, when DDOT asked to switch the type of tracks to comply with Buy America, people at FHWA realized they should involve FTA and talked to FTA about the tracks.
  5. FTA judged that the tracks hadn't gone through proper process. FHWA then told DDOT they couldn't do the tracks without more review.
  6. FTA suggested 3 options for DDOT to get approval for the tracks, which would have required longer process that could have delayed the entire project and cost more money.
  7. In July, DDOT decided not to pursue those and finish the project without the tracks.
In step 3, DDOT officials apparently believed that they had the necessary federal approvals to go ahead with tracks, since FHWA had signed off on documents. Maybe DDOT should have realized they should go talk to FTA. Maybe they were hoping nobody would notice so they didn't have to. Or maybe they honestly thought everything was fine.

Clearly, if DDOT had gone through some more process years ago, we would all be better off today. DDOT officials admit they probably screwed up, in hindsight. But federal processes are very complex. A agency can go extremely slowly and make absolutely sure they cross every t and dot every i (and still maybe make mistakes), or they can try to move faster and do the best they can. DDOT, from at least Dan Tangherlini through Gabe Klein, was trying to move fast and get a lot done. Somewhere along the way (though before Gabe Klein took over), this happened.

But in June, whatever happened before, we were faced with this situation: One federal agency had been telling DDOT they could go ahead; now another stepped in and said no. Maybe federal law is so unambiguous that the tracks can't possibly go forward, even if FHWA had approved them for months, even with local money, that FTA officials had absolutely no choice. But was it?

Could they have said, "That's too bad, this one got by. Hey, FHWA, please try to keep an eye out for stuff like this in the future, and DDOT, we're going to ask you to be a little more careful next time. Okay? Let's just do the tracks anyway and we'll all try to do better."

Or, could they have said, "We're sorry, we really don't think that it's legal to use federal money for the tracks, but if you want to use some local money, we'll let this be a 'nonparticipating' part of the project."

That's the question. Rogoff's letter suggests these two options were not available to FTA. Other transportation professionals say they were. This question defines the issue of whether FTA "put up a roadblock" in July, or just acted as they must.

Update: In the Post piece, Rogoff also adds another option, placing removable blocks on the bridge that can be changed to tracks in the future. Rogoff's piece says DDOT declined to pursue any options, including the removable blocks, but DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says the removable blocks are indeed what DDOT is doing as part of making the bridge "streetcar ready."

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