For the first time in nearly five decades, the federal government has the power to set safety standards for the nation’s subway and bus system, replacing a patchwork of state oversight.
Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act or MAP-21, which went into effect Oct. 1, gave the Federal Transit Administration this new authority to oversee transit systems and to set national policy for transit safety. These transit systems have not been regulated by the federal government since 1964.
“What we have right now is 27 different, very small, frankly, very ineffective and understaffed state agencies that have been overseeing this function, and many do not have the authority even from their own state legislatures to really compel the attention and respect of the transit agencies they oversee,” said Peter Rogoff, FTA administrator, in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.
The legislation does not eliminate the Federal Railroad Administration’s oversight of commuter rail, such as the MARC and VRE in the Washington area.
“What a lot of people didn’t realize is if you travel to Union Station on MARC and VRE and switch over to a Metro train, you suddenly go from a regulated environment to a completely unregulated environment. And that’s what this puts a stop to,” Rogoff said. The expanded role of the FTA will include finding potential transit problems before they become an accident, such as the 2009 Metro crash in D.C. that killed nine people. The “first on scene” to an accident is still the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency. Under MAP-21, FTA can link a “pattern of practices that we see is unsafe behavior” and then identify and rectify a problem before a crash, Rogoff said.
Rogoff noted the agency is starting with a “blank slate” as far as federal transit regulation. Because each transit system is unique, FTA has a saying, “if you’ve seen one transit agency, you’ve seen one transit agency,” he said.
One best practice is to use the “eyes and ears” of everybody, from passengers to transit system employees, he said.
FTA is a $10.5 billion agency with the “vast majority” of its budget awarded in grants to transit agencies, Rogoff said. Under MAP-21, FTA will get an additional $22 million annual funding stream to help the 27 state partners train personnel and hire more staff. However, that money is now tied up until Congress passes a full budget. The federal government is funded on a continuing resolution through March.
“We are hamstrung for the first six months of the fiscal year in terms of launching everything we want to get out the door,” Rogoff said.