Chalk this one up to a bad idea.
In a move entirely disproportionate to the problem, the Obama Administration is planning to propose federal oversight of local transit safety. Long the purview of the state bodies, safety measures have come under fire in recent months after a fatal crash in Washington, D.C. To combat what federal transportation officials view as rising safety concerns, the administration will, according to the Washington Post, send a plan to Congress that would allow the government to issue mandatory federal safety regulations for local transit agencies.
“After the [Metro] train crash, we were all sitting around here scratching our heads, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this,’ and we discovered that there’s not much we could do, because the law wouldn’t allow us to do it,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said to the Washington Post
The details so far have not been released, but coverage in today’s Times provides us with some clues:
Currently, 27 state safety agencies hold the responsibility for keeping transit systems safe, but the quality of those agencies varies widely, transportation officials said. Some rely on the very transit systems they are supposed to oversee for financing and lack the authority to enforce their rules. As for staffing, the state safety agencies average less than one full-time staff person per agency, the officials said.
Under the administration’s plan, states would be allowed to maintain oversight of their transit systems as long as they could demonstrate that they have enough fully-trained staff members to enforce federal safety rules, the authority to compel compliance from the transit system and enough financial independence from the systems they are regulating, officials said.
The federal government would also cover the costs of salaries and benefits for state employees overseeing standards. In states that are unable to provide adequate oversight, the federal government would assume that role.
On the surface, standardizing safety compliance and regulations seems to be a sound policy. Yet, when we dig into the rationale behind this and comparable measures as the commuter rail level, the idea breaks down. First, The Times explores the statistics spurring on federal action. Passenger injuries, the paper reports, on subways and light rail have increased a whopping 182 percent. There must be an epidemic, right? Wrong.
Over the last five years, injury rates have increased from 0.483 injures per 100 million miles to 1.362. As a comparison, automobile fatality rates are 1.27 per 100 million miles and injury rates are approximately 100 per 100 million miles.
Second, we can examine how federal safety regulations of commuter rail lines have caused numerous problems. In addition to the costs — which I’ll examine in a paragraph — federal safety regulations have become too burdensome. One of the reasons why commuter rail and Amtrak have yet to utilize fully the potential of high-speed rail stems from the federal government’s safety standards. Because of these mandates, trains are heavier than they need to be. Thus, production costs are increased and top speeds are slower than we would prefer. The balance between safety and efficiency has not yet been achieved.
Finally, the costs of compliance and enforcement are problematic as well. According to page two of the Post’s report, federal capital grants would be rescinded if agencies do not adhere to safety regulations. However, New York state politicians are fearful that the feds won’t foot the bill for compliance and enforcement efforts. How, then, should the nation’s cash-starved transit agencies — agencies that don’t suffer from major safety problems — pay for adherence to federal safety guidelines?
I certainly appreciate LaHood’s thinking, and in certain situations, standardized safety regulations make sense. But until train injuries increase and until the federal government can fund these safety projects, this is a policy we in New York should not support.