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Link: Congress considering federal oversight for subways

by Benjamin Kabak

When it comes to the nation’s rail networks, many transit advocates insist — and generally rightly so — that federal oversight is holding us back. The FRA imposes crash-test regulations that lead to train cars that are unnecessarily heavy and operations unnecessarily slowed down. Thus, train travel cannot achieve speeds and efficiencies it otherwise should.

It is, then, somewhat alarming that we now learn Congress is considering federal oversight for subway systems. Basically because subways are under local rule and Congress grew concerned over a spate of crashes in its own backyard involving the WMATA, the country’s federal legislative body is now toying with the idea of bringing every subway system’s safety regulations under federal control. “We have federal safety standards for planes, trains and automobiles. It’s shocking we don’t have them for the 7 million Americans who rely on metro systems every day,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said to The Washington Post.

As we sit here in New York, though, we shouldn’t embrace this idea. Already our subway cars are generally heavier than they need to be. We also don’t have the same troubled history with safety regulations as the WMATA does. If Congress is truly concerned with that bi-state (and one district) subway authority, it should exercise its oversight powers there. Otherwise, federal oversight of New York City subways will likely lead to onerous regulations and unfunded mandates that will slow down service and rob us of our efficiencies. It’s just not necessary.

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Christopher February 14, 2012 - 4:58 pm

I actually generally support this. I support national standards for subways too. All these independent systems with differing specifications impede innovation and also raise costs. I do think it would be better if the agencies themselves worked together to develop their own system (in the way the movie industry developed ratings in order to prevent a more draconian system from the Feds) but I think standardization of design and safety and inter-agency operability is not the enemy.

Bolwerk February 14, 2012 - 8:28 pm

Standards are fine, but that’s not likely what we are to get. We are likely to only get oversight and costs imposed on us.

(And the FRA almost certainly makes things less safe.)

Andrew February 17, 2012 - 12:27 am

The problem is that New York’s subway already has a highly robust (if archaic) signal system. It works well, and there’s no reason to replace it wholesale.

Signal systems are extremely costly, to the point that some lines are still using signals from the 20’s and 30’s. Replacing signals is also very disruptive to service.

I have no problem with functional safety standards, that dictate the types of hazard that need to be protected against. But dictating the nature of the signal system itself simply won’t work.

WMATA has a serious problem with its signal system. NYCT doesn’t.

Al D February 14, 2012 - 5:15 pm

That’s all we need, another layer of governance on the system. Can you imagine?

Vinny February 14, 2012 - 5:15 pm

This is blatantly unconstitutional. There is no power of the Federal government to control a transportation system within a city or state. You could make the case that the Path train or NJ Transit is an exception because they travel between two or more states, but subways?

I don’t think so.

And once the federal government talks about regulating something, it’s not just making rules, it’s creating new bureaucracies and hiring new people to enforce and regulate. No thanks.

Leave it where it is and keep your unconstitutional nose out of it.

Jason B. February 14, 2012 - 8:41 pm

A lot gets tied to funding. If the subway system gets federal dollars it will need to adhere to their rules if they so choose. And we can’t afford to forego federal dollars.

Marc Shepherd February 15, 2012 - 11:35 am

That’s exactly right. There are thousands of laws and regulations that might — I stress, might — be arguably unconstitutional if they were free-standing. But what Congress usually does is make funding contingent on adhering to the regulations, and since no one wants to miss out on the federal gravy train, the states usually fall into line.

I do agree that anything the feds regulate, they generally make it worse. But could they do so constitutionally? Of course.

Bolwerk February 19, 2012 - 2:01 am

We probably can, at least sometimes. Federal rules can be so onerous that federal dollars aren’t worth the extra cost in local matching.

Chris February 14, 2012 - 5:29 pm

Hard for the MTA to argue much with the oversight if it wants the cash. While it’s easy for this blog to post one day about federal oversight holding back the subway and the next about how transit is totally dependent on federal funding, the reality is that the people signing over the billions to agencies like the MTA will occasionally pipe up as the how they are run.

Andrew February 17, 2012 - 12:29 am

Depending on the nature of the oversight, it might cost the MTA more to accept the cash than to forego it.

SEAN February 14, 2012 - 5:51 pm

The MTA may stay within NYC, but remember the WMATA opperates in several juristictions. Not only in DC, but Montgomery & Prince Georges Counties in MD as well as Fairfax & Arlington Counties & the city of Alexandrea in VA. All those local officials have a say on how things get done. Also remember the governor of Verginia recently gained some level of influence by holding WMATA funding hostage unless he got a seat on the board.

Anon February 14, 2012 - 5:56 pm

and how do you think that’s going to work out? ………

John-2 February 14, 2012 - 8:55 pm

This wold be a guaranteed “unfunded mandate” nightmare, as the Federal Subway Administration in Washington tells New York (and other cities) what’s best for them, based on what they think is best for WMATA, while leaving the cities and states stuck finding the ways to pay for those new rules … which being the federal government, would probably extended to not just the railcars and trackage, but also how wide stairways have to be, how many escalators are mandated per station, width requirements for the partition space on high-entry turnstiles, etc. (and on the plus-or-minus side, depending on your view of the proposal, even if the new federal rules were limited to cross-jurisdictional systems, like PATH, it would put the kibosh on any future plan to send the 7 to Secaucus Junction, since a tunnel to NJ would bring the entire subway system under federal oversight).

Alex C February 14, 2012 - 10:56 pm

The FRA is the most useless, idiotic agency in the federal government. They are the definition of incompetence. They are one of the major reasons rail services in the US are so awful. Based on that experience, I am firmly against this. The part where they try to somehow standardize BART, NYCTA and CTA is hilarious. What, are they going to force BART to rebuild their system to standard gauge to receive federal funding? I can’t even imagine what kind of “safety” standards they’d have for subway car “crash-worthiness.” 120,000 lbs. subway cars for all!

Christopher February 15, 2012 - 10:42 am

Well BART and WMATA use similarly designed vehicles so I would think that they would allowed in.

Bolwerk February 15, 2012 - 1:38 pm

You don’t need to completely standardize existing systems per se. You make standards, and provide exemptions to existing systems where it would be too difficult to deviate from built-in design (e.g., BART’s gauge). Things that don’t depend on that built-in design (e.g., seats or door widths or signaling) could still follow the standards. Future systems could be 100% compliant and might be the better for it.

That’s all well and good if it’s done sensibly. I agree it probably wouldn’t be – and worse, it would probably be done in a way to (deliberately?) harm New York or transit in general.

VMGillen February 15, 2012 - 9:13 am

Here in NYC plans are (maybe already in place?) to connect Staten Island to the NJ light rail in Bayonne…

John-2 February 15, 2012 - 2:28 pm

Semi-related to this, at least in a “Problems in Washington” way — conservative political wonk Michael Barone has a critique of WMATA’s problems. Some accurate stuff, some nitpicking, a little union-bashing, and a nod to the fact that New York City hasn’t been able to get a one-seat ride to the airport yet, even as WMATA has it’s link to National and builds the Silver Line to Dulles.

Alon Levy February 15, 2012 - 11:32 pm

Ben, you have a typo in “The FTA imposes crash-test regulations”: it’s the FRA that imposes those rules. The FTA has its own problems with what it considers cost-effective, but it lets transit agencies design their own trains.

And before people in this forum rush to justify asking how high they should jump, consider the fact that the subways in the US are a lot safer than the mainline system. Heavy rail carries nearly the same traffic as mainline rail (commuter + Amtrak) measured in passenger-km per year, but has less than the mainline average of about 8 dead passengers per year.

UESider February 18, 2012 - 11:22 am

What are they drinking in Washington? We’ve done just fine managing our own subway and in no way need some DC wonk telling us how to do things ‘right’

Albany is bad enough, leave us alone to manage our affairs. This sounds like the Enghlish colonial rule

Have they not heard of the deficit problems? And someone thinks a national subway standard managed by -ahem- the Federal Subway Administration is going to benefit NYers??

what a bunch of nonsense. Whats right for the Bay area, what’s right for NYC or DC does not need ‘help’ from Washington and does Not need afederal agency to set ‘standards’

We have been doing just fine on our own. And, if our tax dollars stayed local, we wouldnt need to depend on Washington. Let us take care of us – we’re not telling DC how to run their lives – if they want our help, let them ask us. If we want Washington’s help, we’ll call you!

Bolwerk February 19, 2012 - 2:04 am

Yes, New York and other northeastern states are fairly competent about meeting their own needs. But that’s not really the case in most states, which often depend on our wealth for survival and need their daddies in Washington to rule over them. (If you’re wondering what those states are, they tended to support Bush and McCain in recent elections.)

The good and bad of the Senate Transportation Bill :: Second Ave. Sagas March 15, 2012 - 11:50 am

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