Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported on the Obama Administration’s plan to promulgate federal regulations for local transit agencies. At the time, I was vehemently opposed to the regulations on three grounds, and I remain convinced of that position despite a recent editorial from The Times urging the FTA to pursue a national safety regulatory scheme.
My argument was a three-pronged attack on the idea. First, rail transit just isn’t dangerous enough to warrant federal intervention. While auto travel features an injury rate of 100 per 100 million miles and a fatality rate of around 1.27 per 100 million miles, train injury rates are 1.362 per 100 million miles, and the fatality rate is negligible. Second, past practices have shown how burdensome federal safety regulations are. Commuter rail lines and Amtrak trains are made to be too heavy to run at top speeds just so they can meet standards. Finally, because this would be another unfunded government mandate, it would be too much fiscal pressure on public transit authorities already struggling to stay afloat. In other words, it’s just a bad and unnecessary idea.
The editorial board of The Times thinks otherwise. Here’s their take:
The Obama administration wisely wants to end this disjunction by proposing that Congress extend federal standards to subway and light-rail lines now haphazardly regulated in more than two dozen city and regional systems. The safety rules and monitoring are shockingly toothless in too many jurisdictions, with the systems averaging less than one overworked safety worker.
The Washington accident happened on the second-busiest subway line in the nation. It is theoretically monitored by a tri-state committee that was found, however, to have no regulatory authority or enforcement workers.
Under the administration’s approach, the safety of subway and light-rail lines could remain under the jurisdiction of local authorities only if they agreed to upgraded equipment and monitoring standards set by the Department of Transportation. The alternative would be direct federal regulation. Federal money already subsidizes subway and light-rail growth, and it should be cut off to systems that cling to risky standards.
The government was barred from regulating subways and light rail in 1965 when home rule was a priority. But new systems have boomed since then, along with collisions and derailments. The National Transportation Safety Board has warned about the dangers for decades.
The choice for Congress is stark: Improve safety on light rail and subways, or wait for the next train wreck.
Apparently, according to The Times, because Washington’s three-headed WMATA doesn’t have sufficient safety oversight, other transit agencies should have to suffer under the weight of federal regulation as well. Why? Because they accept federal money to operate and grow. Meanwhile, The Times claims that “collisions and derailments” have boomed when that reality has not arrived.
This approach is, simply put, wrong. If the WMATA needs more stringent safety measures, then fine. The Feds oversee a third of the DC Metro and can do with it what they see fit. But cutting off federal funds to other transit agencies who refuse to follow stringent and oftentimes misguided regulations would set a bad precedent. In a time when we need to encourage more transit growth and use, the Administration should not implement measures antithetical to that goal.
If the federal government is willing to subsidize the implementation of costly safety standards while foisting maintenance costs onto local authorities, I would be more willing to support this measure. But the government should not be denying funds to agencies that can’t afford to upgrade already safe systems to meet stringent requirements. Considering that the largest local transit system in the country is in its own backyard, the editorial writers at The Times would do the city well to promote this plan and not the one they espoused today.