Obama Administration Proposes New Role for FTA in Transit Safety Oversight

The Obama Administration recently outlined its proposal for enhanced federal safety oversight of subways, light-rail and municipal bus systems. USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood said, Now, would we prefer that states regulate their own systems? You bet. But some states simply lack the resources to do that. And, in a pinch, some state will cut safety items from their budgets. For transit passengers those cuts are too dear.

The proposed Public Transportation Safety Program Act of 2009 would authorize the Secretary, through the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), to set and enforce minimum federal transit safety standards and ensure that transit safety efforts grow in tandem with increased ridership.

USDOT is currently prohibited from establishing federal transit safety standards, and instead relies on 27 State Safety Oversight Agencies (SSAs) to monitor transit safety as provided in 49 CFR Part 659.   Following several transit incidents earlier this year, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff announced the Administration’s intent to enhance federal oversight.  [See FTA Considering New Safety Oversight for Rail Transit.]  Funding, independence, and enforcement powers are critical concerns for SSAs, which average less than one staff person per transit agency and in some cases rely on transit revenues from the systems they oversee.

Under the proposed program, FTA would be authorized to promulgate minimum national standards for rail transit safety, applicable to all fixed rail systems not currently under Federal Railroad Administration jurisdiction. (The legislation would also authorize bus safety regulatory authority but DOT expects its initial focus to be on rail transit safety.)

States could choose to continue transit safety oversight on behalf of FTA, but only when FTA finds that the SSA has:

  •          an adequate number of fully-trained staff to enforce federal regulations;
  •          been granted sufficient authority by its governor and state legislature to compel compliance by the transit systems it oversees; and
  •          sufficient financial independence from any transit systems under its purview.



FTA would provide federal funds to assure adequately staffed and trained SSAs. FTA would assume direct oversight for agencies that opt out of the program, or which FTA deems inadequate. Transit agencies would bear the cost of complying with the new safety program and would risk losing federal funding for capital improvements should they fail to meet the new standards.

Congress has scheduled hearings on the Administration’s proposal, with an inquiry by the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee set for December 8.  Senator Mikulski and Rep. Donna Edwards  have already introduced legislation (S. 1506 / H.R. 3338) aimed at implementing National Transportation Safety Board recommendations on transit safety.

Chairman Oberstar has yet to comment on the proposal, but Representative Mica, T&I Ranking Member, told the New York Times that he would prefer to see tougher state regulations and more federal financing to help states enforce them.   Mr. Mica noted that transit systems vary widely in size and scope, and expressed his ambivalence over FTA’s proposed role, saying I’m certain there’s room for improvement, but I would be very hesitant about the federal government or FTA becoming the transit enforcement agency.

T&I Committee member Representative Nadler has expressed his support for the Administration’s proposal, saying There’s always pressure to cut wherever you can. It’s good to have an outside agency or monitor to make sure you don’t cut safety.

The Administration’s transit safety proposal adds another dynamic to an already challenging legislative dialogue over the next surface transportation authorization. As Congress considers new federal funding for public transportation investment, FTA’s recent rail modernization study is sobering. According to FTA, the nation’s top seven transit systems alone have a backlog of unmet needs in excess of $50 billion, and more than 33 percent of the assets held in these systems are in marginal condition or have exceeded their useful life. The Administration’s insistence that the transit systems themselves will bear the responsibility – and the cost – of complying with any federal safety requirements seems certain to assure ample discussion of public transportation safety as surface transportation authorization proceeds.


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