Posts about Tri-State Oversight
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?
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?
A new audit of Metro's safety found that operational departments still need to be more deeply involved enough in safety, and that safety officials need to focus more on small incidents in addition to larger ones.
This audit, conducted by the Tri-State Oversight Committee and released this week, takes a closer look at Metro safety practices than before. While the FTA's audit, released in March, revealed systemic concerns such as the lack of a Hazard Management System, the nearly 300-page TOC audit reveals the specific deficiencies of such systems.
Metro riders should take some comfort that this in-depth audit was conducted and made public. The Board, media and public should make sure that each "deficiency" and "area of concern" revealed by the audit is addressed.
The TOC audit portrays the safety management within Metro (known as SAFE for System Safety and Environmental Management) as an island, isolated from the departments whose processes and procedures SAFE is charged with continuously improving.
For example, SAFE's manual of operating procedures (Safety System Program Plan, or SSPP) apparently bears little relation to what workers actually do, because other departments aren't included in writing or revising these procedures.
p 64. Area of Concern 4-1. Non-SAFE departments and the ELT are not engaged in updates to the SSPP. WMATA did not solicit the review and comments of the other WMATA departments to which the SSPP applies, per the lessons learned from the December 2009 Internal Safety Audit conducted by APTA. Thus, the descriptions provided within each element of the SSPP do not fully represent the processes and documentation used by the non-SAFE departments in implementing the SSPP.
The island move further from the shore when hazard analysis is conducted, as SAFE ignores reports of hazards from most sources.
p 78. Area of Concern 6-6. Too few sources provide input regarding hazardous conditions. Primary input of hazardous conditions to SAFE comes from the OCC [Operations Control Center]. SAFE needs to expand the sources of hazardous condition reporting to include inspections, audits, investigations, observations. hotlines, etc.
This is very consistent with the complaint amongst Metro workers that the organization won't do anything about reported safety hazards.
SAFE is primarily reacting to major accidents, not getting out ahead of the next accident. This reactive position is only hardened by the enormous pressure to respond to NTSB recommendations, all of which are reactive preventions of the causes of previous major accidents. TOC criticizes this reactive posture, as have I on multiple occasions.
p 79. Area of Concern 6-9. Hazard management does not include smaller incidents. The trending and analysis of multiple, less serious, incidents or near misses is not currently being accomplished.
Some portion of these issues are being addressed by Metro, with new hires and training in SAFE, all of which are mentioned by TOC.
The McDonnell administration is making a push to take some of Virginia's WMATA Board seats away from Northern Virginia jurisdictions, which currently appoint elected officials to the Board.
In a letter to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaugton wrote:
With the increase in [state] funding [for transit], plus the recent commitment of additional resources to improve the performance of the federally-mandated state safety oversight program, the Commonwealth believes it is appropriate to request that NVTC provide two of its four appointments to the WMATA Board of Directors, one Principal Director and one Alternate Director, to [the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation,] DRPT.This would be a big setback for riders and the region. The Virginia members, being elected officials, are some of the most responsive and transparent members of the WMATA Board. It was the Virginia members who pushed for the proposed budget to be released and have most strongly opposed overuse of executive sessions, for example.
Northern Virginia counties also were the first to increase their support for transit after residents demanded it. Maryland, where the Governor answers to the entire state, was far more difficult. At least a tough reelection that depends on Montgomery and Prince George's voters, coupled with strong support from the Post editorial board, persuaded Governor O'Malley not to raid transit.
In Virginia, the state government is already beholden to rural interests and refuses to let Northern Virginia govern itself as it sees fit. Northern Virginia is not Governor McDonnell's base. He isn't making this move because he wants to listen to riders and make the Board more responsive to our concerns. He doesn't want to make transit better. He doesn't seem to even believe in transit at all.
While WMATA faced its historic $190 million budget gap, Governor McDonnell never offered state assistance, and according to an NVTC member, Northern Virginia never really asked. Until now, it's always been expected that Northern Virginia appoints the Board members and Northern Virginia finds the money if they want more transit service. In contrast, in Maryland, where the Board members are appointed by the Governor, the state pays the full WMATA bill.
There's also been strong speculation that this is the objective of the Board of Trade/MWCOG commission that was created to "study WMATA governance" but didn't include any representatives of riders or transit advocates. Some influential business figures would like to make WMATA more like MWAA: run through backroom deals by powerful insiders, completely unresponsive to residents, like when they pulled the rug out from under the Fairfax Connector.
Connaughton argues that the state will soon provide a little more than half (52.2%) of the funding for WMATA, including Virginia's share of the $50 million per year in federal match and the existing discretionary and formula capital and operating funds that go to transit systems across the state.
However, this argument obscures several realities. As Connaughton notes, much of the money is allocated to Northern Virginia via a formula, worked out in the General Assembly through long negotiation. Northern Virginia allocates more of its money to transit, while the rest of the state gets more for roads.
Plus, this money is all Northern Virginia taxpayers' money anyway, just collected by the state and then distributed in part to WMATA via NVTC. Overall, Northern Virginia residents pay more to the state in taxes than they get back.
Connaughton seems to threaten not to participate in the 6-year capital funding that continues after Metro Matters expires unless he gets control. Area Congressional representatives would probably not look kindly upon such a move. At the recent Senate hearing, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who sits on the appropriations subcommittee that handles transportation, expressed a strong feeling that the states and the District need to keep up their commitments to a state of good repair if Congress is going to continue making extra contributions.
Virginia, like Maryland, DC, and now the federal government, appoints four members to the WMATA Board: two voting Principal Directors and two nonvoting Alternate Directors. NVTC consists of 13 elected officials from Arlington (3), Alexandria (2), Fairfax County (5), Fairfax City (1), Loudoun (1), and Falls Church (1), 2 state Senators, 4 state delegates, and one appointed by the Governor.
NVTC then selects the four Board members. The current Principal Directors are Catherine Hudgins from Fairfax County and Chris Zimmerman from Arlington, and the Alternate Directors are William Euille from Alexandria and Jeff McKay from Fairfax County.
If the change were to go through, DRPT Director Thelma Drake, a former Republican Congresswoman from the Hampton Roads area and current resident of Norfolk, is expected to be chosen as the voting member. At their meeting last night, NVTC didn't act on the proposal, but agreed to send a letter in response to Connaughton outlining their concerns about the idea. Most representatives were opposed to the proposal. One of the few supporters was Joe May, delegate from Loudoun and Clarke Counties and Chair of the Virginia House Transportation Committee.
Everybody seems to want to have more control over WMATA, but far fewer want to show leadership to try to improve it. The latest vague noises about WMATA oversight come from Mayor Fenty and Governors McDonnell and O'Malley, who gave a press conference about wanting more control over an agency they've virtually ignored.
According to the Post's Frerick Kunkle,
All three agreed that they wanted to have better oversight over WMATA's management and the people they appoint to run it.This might sound good in the press, but is extremely ironic since these three have plenty of oversight authority already which they've neglected to exercise.
All three were more than a little vague about how this would happen, except to say they would ask Congress to make legislative changes. And they agreed to meet and talk some more.
"I think we have some consensus that some improvements are needed in that compact to give us more oversight," McDonnell (R) said. "I think, quite frankly, we agree we need more accountability at WMATA," Fenty (D) said. "We would like to have more direct oversight over WMATA, and not less," O'Malley (D) said. "And I think that was the bottom line coming out of today's discussions."
And, not surprisingly, none of the three took transit to the event.
The Tri-State Oversight Committee, which exercises the safety oversight the leaders say is lacking, is directly under the control of those three. The members of TOC are employees of DDOT, MDOT and VDOT, and thus report directly to Fenty, O'Malley and McDonnell. Yet prior to the crash, TOC was virtually invisible to the heads of the DOTs and the elected leaders.
When TOC ran into problems like being denied access to tracks, they didn't feel they had the access to the top to escalate the problem. If WMATA lacked effective oversight before last year's crash, Fenty, O'Malley, and former Governor Tim Kaine were the ones with the most direct ability to change the situation.
Fixing that was the one constructive change the three did announce: "The Tri-State Oversight Committee would receive 'additional executive authority' with monthly reviews and reporting requirements," according to Kunkle.
It's rich to hear O'Malley complain about not having more accountability given that he personally appoints the WMATA Board members from Maryland. What power does he want, exactly? O'Malley has kept mum about WMATA's funding problems, even while most local representatives have asked for support.
His administration is also deferring existing capital commitments and resisting renewing its capital commitments. That money is necessary to replace unsafe railcars and avoid dangerous overcrowding. If O'Malley thinks things can be better at WMATA, he could start by making public statements about what he'd actually do to make things better.
Fenty didn't put anything in the budget to help maintain service, despite receiving hundreds of emails from DC residents asking for a Fair Share for Metro. In his reply to those residents, he falsely said the WMATA Board decides budget issues, when in fact he does.
His administration does only get one vote on the Board, but has kept the overly-busy City Administrator Neil Albert in the seat, who doesn't ever say much at meetings. Jim Graham, the Council's rep, is much more active. Fenty and Albert could also start having more oversight over WMATA by talking publicly about how they'd like to change things, instead of just how they'd like more control.
As for McDonnell, he can indeed complain about not having more power over WMATA. He doesn't appoint anyone to the Board, since the local jurisdictions do that. However, that's because the State of Virginia doesn't pay for transit service. In general, Virginia has spent most of its energy (under Democratic and Republican governors alike) ignoring WMATA with the exception of pushing for a new line, and spending all its transportation money on everything but transit.
However, he can do plenty to improve transit, like instructing VDOT to start working constructively to implement bus priority corridors around the state, or letting Northern Virginia jurisdictions tax themselves if they so choose to support transit.
WMATA isn't perfect. There's plenty to improve. However, a lack of control is not getting in the way of O'Malley, Fenty, and McDonnell taking clear steps to start fixing the situation. They've taken one very small step to change the one area they control unilaterally, but could do plenty more. It's just easier to blame others instead of trying to work to fix things.
The Federal Transit Administration found serious communication failures at WMATA surrounding safety, and an inadequate safety oversight system in the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC). At a briefing yesterday, area Congressional representatives seemed extremely frustrated at their inability to fix this problem.
According to a report released yesterday, the current Tri-State Oversight Committee has not been sufficiently effective. Its members are lower-level employees of the three state DOTs, and top managers at those DOTs weren't even aware that TOC members reported to them. At least, Pierce Homer of VDOT was not, according to FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff at the hearing. Conflicting laws and procedures of the three jurisdictions sometimes interfere with the TOC, such as their communication with the media and response to FOIA requests.
TOC only worked with low-level staffers at WMATA, and were stymied when WMATA refused to allow them certain types of access because "there was no process in place" for them to go over the heads of the Chief Safety Officer. The FTA report simply recommends such a process be created, but it's also troubling that TOC members felt they couldn't do anything without a formal process. If their office building is on fire, do they consult their procedures manual to determine whether the official process is to notify their superiors first and wait at their desks for instructions before calling 911?
The FTA report also says "WMATA managers and executives stated that TOC, at times, appeared to be using the media in a punitive manner to resolve differences of opinion with WMATA," but TOC members "explained that the media found these stories and featured them, without influence from TOC." Perhaps the best thing to happen to safety at WMATA was the Post's discovery that WMATA refused track access, which led to the Board getting involved and setting up a new rule that staff notify them anytime they deny a TOC request. But instead of praising this development, the TOC is basically disavowing any involvement and WMATA managers are complaining about it.
WMATA marginalized their safety office, according to the report. The safety office is understaffed, with 10 of 41 positions vacant, depriving them of the ability to coordinate among departments or conduct safety audits of their own. Furthermore, the report says that the rail division doesn't share information with the safety office and that safety officials aren't involved in high-level discussions that could involve safety.
Many of these problems are now improving. The Board now has given TOC the official permission it was waiting for to pick up the phone and call the Board when something is wrong, and WMATA and the TOC are now working together to close "Corrective Action Plans" (CAPs), the recommendations from TOC on safety. They have closed 75 in the last two months, bringing the number outstanding from 140 to 66.
The most disappointing piece to me is why it took press attention and FTA oversight to identify, explain, and fix these issues. WMATA could have formulated and publicized its own report explaining how the safety structure was deficient and suggesting ways it would fix them on its own. It didn't. After the Post discovered and publicized the lapses, WMATA's statements instead nitpicked specific wording from TOC Chair Eric Madison to try to claim there wasn't a problem at all.
WMATA needs to own up to these things, not just respond to the FTA's report and have meetings but actually start coming clean to riders. There are undoubtedly some points the FTA missed; WMATA should proactively suggest those as well. As for the TOC, they have a solemn responsibility to ensure safety, and should take whatever steps necessary without regret, whether that's breaking procedure and going directly to top managers or the Board, or talking to the press and shouting from the rooftops when something is wrong.
At the briefing, Congressional representatives seemed remarkably frustrated, just as Senator Menendez and his colleagues were when they sent the letter threatening some indeterminate kind of "federal takeover." Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) also kept asking about a takeover, to which Rogoff repeatedly replied that the FTA does not operate transit systems and has no desire to take over WMATA nor do they think that would be helpful. Mark Warner (D-VA) asked about the Board structure, wondering if it's problematic that the Board Chairmanship keeps rotating, a point Homer raised in an op-ed shortly after John Catoe
resigned submitted his resignation.
A takeover makes no sense, and changing the Board rotation wouldn't fix much. But the Senators clearly seem to be casting about for a solution. They don't want to devote all their time to this issue. They want to find something they can do to fix the problem. The Board, top managers, and advocates should work together to figure out what this is, so that the Senators can actually do something constructive instead of flailing around and breaking things.
The Tri-State Oversight Committee, Metro's independent safety inspectors, has released a report on safety in work zones on rail tracks. Unfortunately, problems remain.
Metro had two worker fatalities in 2009. Upon resuming track inspections, Tri-State found several violations of Metro's safety procedures. Trains did not always slow down around work zones, and one train almost hit safety inspectors as its operator drove along tracks near Braddock Road at full speed.
According to the report, safety procedures call for trains to slow to 35 mph two stations before a work zone, then 10 mph through the work zone, but inspectors observed trains violating these rules. They also observed track workers not following the safety procedures around "flagging" trains, facing passing trains, and communicating with dispatchers from a safe place.
TOC also found some "antagonism between employees working in the ROW and Train Operators" and a few specific holes in rules which could pose safety problems, like vague definitions and situations where employees in Brentwood Yard are close enough to live tracks to potentially put themselves in danger.
We know that Metro refused to let a safety oversight board access live tracks. So why didn't anyone tell the General Manager or the Board?
Metro originally denied this request in May. After that, there was a major crash, followed by the deaths of several track workers. All along, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) was writing increasingly frustrated letters to Metro safety officer Alexa Dupigny-Samuels and getting rejected. But neither Dupigny-Samuels, her supervisor Emeka Moneme, or anyone on the TOC saw fit to tell the Board about this issue.
This morning, the Metro Board interviewed members of the Tri-State Oversight Committee and discussed the recent problems. Many Board members zeroed in on the clear communication failure here. Why, asked Jim Graham, didn't they go to the Board once they received the denial?
One of the TOC members replied that that they didn't have a relationship with the Board at the time, and now they are considering what communication process to establish, such as a quarterly report to the Board or annual meeting with the Board. That's a fairly bureaucratic answer. This could have been better: "Mr. Chairman, you're right. In the future, we will not let any process or bureaucracy get in the way of our mission to ensure safety. If we think there's a problem, we will come to you right away."
The TOC also didn't communicate the problems to their bosses, such as the Virginia Secretary of Transportation, who could have passed along issues to the Virginia representatives on the Metro Board.
Alternate board member Gordon Linton noted that Metro might have had some reasons for denying TOC's request. While they got the blame for rejecting the request, if a TOC member had died on the tracks, the Metro safety personnel would have taken the blame as well. Dupigny-Samuels also said that the refusal was meant to keep the TOC members safe, not to shut down their efforts. She said Metro was trying to work with them to find ways for them to meet their needs, such as observing from the cabs of working trains or monitoring during existing work zones.
Whether Metro was right or TOC was right, this decision clearly shouldn't have been confined to TOC, Dupigny-Smauels, and Moneme. Even John Catoe didn't hear about this until the recent firestorm, he told the Board. Someone at TOC or at Metro, or both, should have realized that this was important enough to pass up the chain.
The Board established a new policy that staff should bring to the Board any letters between themselves and TOC where Metro is denying a TOC request. But this is a broader problem. Whether on SmarTrip or safety, the prevailing culture within these organizations is to undercommunicate instead of overcommunicate. That's a recipe for disaster when, as in these cases, the far-reaching and important decision reached without communication or input turns out to be a really poor one.
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