Home Public Transit Policy The good and bad of the Senate Transpo Bill

The good and bad of the Senate Transpo Bill

by Benjamin Kabak

By a vote of 74-22, the Senate yesterday passed their version of a reauthorization of the transportation bill. You can read all about the vote at Streetsblog and Transportation for America. I wanted to discuss a few key New York-centric aspects of this new measure.

First, the good: New York City stands to benefit tremendously under the Senate version of the bill. As The Post notes, New York State would receive $1.4 billion in transit dollars and $1.7 billion in road money. The bulk of the transit dollars would fund MTA projects, and the commuter tax benefits would be restored to $240 per month. “It’s one of the most important bills for New York that’s going to come this year,” Chuck Schumer, Senior Senator from the Great State of New York, said.

Now the bad: Besides the fact that the House seems intent on enacting a Tea Party-style death by a million cuts on the Transportation Bill and the final version will have to go to conference for a reconciliation, the safety measures are something we should not be quick to embrace. As The Washington Post explains, the Senate, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that the derailment and collision problems through which only the WMATA suffers warrant sweeping federal safety oversight of the nation’s subway systems.

“We have federal safety standards for planes, trains and automobiles. We need them for transit systems like Washington’s Metro,” Maryland’s Sen. Barbara Mikulski said. “I will keep pushing forward on reforming Metro until it’s safe for the people who work on it and the people who ride on it.”

Now, it’s all well and good for the Senate to be concerned with the lone subway system that literally runs through its backyard, but as I said a few weeks ago, federal oversight for subway systems is unnecessary and likely costly. It will carry unfunded federal mandates that lead to detrimental redundancies that just aren’t necessary to operate a fast and efficient rapid transit network. We’ve seen it with the FRA, and there’s no reason to expect otherwise here. If the Senate has a problem with their own Metro, they should address it at home and not by making the rest of us suffer.

Before we get too upset over these developments, though, we must wait for the House. A looming showdown could drastically alter the structure of this bill, but at least the Senate is willing to move forward with a somewhat sensible transportation solution.

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Vinny March 15, 2012 - 12:12 pm

Would be nice if one of the idiots in our Senate Delegation stood up and said “Hey, there’s no federal power to control intrastate transportation. Sorry.”

But then again, that would require an understanding of the constitution, something that’s not only needed to be in office, it’s actually laughed at.

Benjamin Kabak March 15, 2012 - 12:15 pm

The Senate has the power to stick conditions onto money grants. If the MTA is so eager to accept the capital dollars from Washington, it will have to accept what are constitutionally-permissive safety regulations as well. Doesn’t make it sound policy though.

Vinny March 15, 2012 - 12:19 pm

And there you have the perpetual problem of a large federal government. New York sends out more than it takes in, then has to be held to crazy conditions to get back what it sent.

Alex C March 15, 2012 - 12:47 pm

The good news is that the R142/A, R143 and R160A/B all would probably meet any of the new “Safety” standards (Read: idiotic bank-vault-on-wheels weight) being grossly overweight subway cars. Just as with the FRA, all they will end up doing is the same crash-test standards that require all subway cars in America to be as heavy and sluggish as the LIRR and Metro-North cars. Sure those standards haven’t made American railway travel an ounce safer than in Europe or Japan and increase energy usage, but who cares. The FRA is convinced that the rest of the civilized world is doing it wrong and just making the cars be tanks will solve everything.

Spendmore Wastemore March 15, 2012 - 1:01 pm

Of course, one’s 7th grade science class explains that closed system subway trains can be crash worthy by means of a little expendable crush space on the ends and between cars. I haven’t seen too many coal trains traversing subway lines. More “fail safes?” The WMATA crashes were caused by gross incompetence and a “hoo cares, not my job” attitude, which the regs will do zero to address.

Ninnies and nannies doing their favorite thing, stupidity enforcement.

Bolwerk March 15, 2012 - 1:26 pm

Meh, I’m pretty sure most head-on collisions over 25mph on a train a fairly certain death.

Crash-prevention is always the best strategy.

Bruce M March 17, 2012 - 2:09 pm

No safer than Europe or Japan? I’m not so sure about that. There was a horrific crash of a commuter train in Japan a few years ago with light-weight cars which pretty much crumpled on impact. I saw a program about a crash of a German long distance train where a wheel malfunction caused a crash into a bridge abutment–again the car involved crumpled.

Alex C March 17, 2012 - 3:27 pm

And I read about this crash in California with FRA compliant cars where the FRA-compliance made no difference and lots of people died awful, bloody deaths.

The ICE crash happened because of Deutsche Bahn skimping on maintenance (take notice, Albany). Part of the problem was the poorly-built bridge at the site, which only made the end outcome worse. You might also notice that an FRA compliant car won’t really survive such a crash either.

The problem is, the European standards are as far as you can go regarding safety. Past that, you’re not getting any actual increase in safety. The FRA’s guidelines are entirely 19th century in their ideology: make it as big and heavy as possible and it’ll be OK for when it crashes. Other agencies realize that the best accident is one that doesn’t happen at all. The best solution is getting rid of at-grade crossings and nation-wide PTC signaling. So while accidents will happen from time to time, proper signaling (with enforced speed limits in the case of the Japanese crash) and no grade-crossings are what is really needed. Our current ideology just leads to slower, more power-hungry railcars that take longer to get up to speed and to stop. Oh, and bigger, more messy pile-ups when things go wrong thanks to physics.

Alon Levy March 17, 2012 - 9:25 pm

Fact: Japan and the US have had the same number of mainline passenger rail fatalities in the last 20 years. Japan, for the record, carries 15 times the traffic of the US measured in passenger-km. Europe’s had more fatalities, but is still 3 times safer than the US.

At Eschede, the bridge fell on the train. FRA compliance will not protect against that. At Amagasaki, the train ran into a building, at 70 km/h, about twice the maximum speed at which FRA compliance is supposed to have any effect. The only reason the US hasn’t had a 100-fatality crash is that the US doesn’t have that much train traffic. People instead drive, which is 1.5 orders of magnitude less safe than taking a train even in the US.

John-2 March 15, 2012 - 2:55 pm

Congress’ view of what’s needed for transit is turning into the equivalents of the old New Yorker cartoon on the view of America from Ninth Avenue, to where they myopically see a problem that can directly affect them or their staff due to ill-advised choices made by WMATA 40 years ago as being something that is so vital to the whole nation it requires everyone to follow the same rules. Even if other transit agencies either dealt with or avoided those problems through actions decades ago (or in the case of the sturdiness of WMATA’s 1000 series car bodies, something the Interborough and Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co. car designers dealt with a century ago).

It would be interesting to see someone run the numbers on how much the Senate mandates might cost, versus how much extra money over the House transportation bill the Senate provides.

Eric F March 16, 2012 - 10:05 am

I find that people who love massive, intrusive and indiscriminate regulation are often surprised and shocked at the results of such regulation when its applied to themselves.

Alex C March 16, 2012 - 12:33 pm

I think trying to apply a set of standards on already-built different subway systems across America is a bit different from telling investment banks not to defraud their customers or telling energy companies to not poison the areas where they extract methane. You’re comparing apples and oranges.

Eric F March 16, 2012 - 12:52 pm

If you frame a regulation in some bumper sticker way, as you just did for what is literally thousands of pages of financial “reform” or enviro. regulation of course it sounds good. Why on earth would anyone be so heartless and caveman-like as to object to the “train safety reform bill”? Is a few extra dollars worth having trains derail and crash into women and children? Or do you think maybe, if you spend a couple of minutes looking at it, there are idiotic and counter productive measures suffused all the way through the stacks and stacks of books that make up the current code of federal regulations?

Bolwerk March 16, 2012 - 12:45 pm

Who exactly in modern politics doesn’t love the idea of an overarching regulatory regime? Really, who? Like it or not, people, especially merchants, need a common set of rules and standards to make commerce work. The last period where western societies didn’t really have those things was called The Dark Ages.

I think regulations should be reviewed, renewed, and tweaked as needed to make them as painless as possible, but the people who complain most about regulation are usually those who want to take regulation to the wildest, most noxious, and most perverse extremes. Like regulating what adults you can marry or whose orifices you can stick with pee-pee in.

JAzumah March 16, 2012 - 12:48 pm

Eric, you have nailed it. Lots of regulations, little consulting with those who have experience.

This provision to allow the feds to fund transit operations is outrageous. If a city of 200,000+ can’t fund transit, then they do not want it. This is a massive budget buster.

Nyland8 March 17, 2012 - 9:43 am

I think if you took a poll, you wouldn’t find ANY “people who love massive, intrusive and indiscriminate regulation”. Maybe not even a single soul.

I suspect that what you’d probably find are mostly people who are in favor of appropriate regulations that serve the public interests in a safe, efficacious and enforceable way.

Alon Levy March 17, 2012 - 9:34 pm

With rhetoric like this, you’re no better than the FRA cavemen. Some regulations are good; others are bad. There are such concepts as “Best industry practices” around. For example, it does not kill train ridership to demand 150 metric tons of buff strength for mainline trains (EU limit), but 360 (FRA limit) is bad, and 900 (FRA limit for >125 mph) is a complete disaster. Simplistic talk in terms of more or less regulation is frankly stupid. Some regulations save lives; others don’t. The whole point of having bureaucrats who know what they’re doing, which the ones at the FRA aren’t, is to be able to distinguish the two.

Eric F March 16, 2012 - 12:56 pm

The notion that the MTA is less incentivized than some federal regulator to ensure effective operating of the MTA’s system is absurd. The MTA has at least “some” local political accountability. Quick, who is the head of the FRA?

I agree that a standard set of operating measures can facilitate smooth commerce, but that’s not an issue here. There is peculiarly post 1960s phenomena of “regulating” something as a method of killing it off. I hope that doesn’t happen to your transit system.

Alon Levy March 17, 2012 - 10:31 pm

The MTA is accountable to the New York political machine. This isn’t your local school board, where you might have some say as an ordinary citizen (I don’t know – it could be as bad as state government). It’s a combine. Pataki was a member, Spitzer was a member, Paterson was a member, Cuomo is a member. Have you ever stopped to wonder why, in a state that sends progressive Democrats to Congress, nobody’s campaigned to a state office on your standard progressive platform? Why Weiner ran on Medicare For All nationally and on Outer Borough angst locally? Expecting any sort of accountability from them is like expecting an absolute monarch to nominate good advisors. He might or he might not, but you have no control over this. Just pay your taxes, listen to the priests, and hope nobody will accuse you of a crime you didn’t commit.

On the imposition of federal safety standards for subway :: Second Ave. Sagas July 3, 2012 - 12:40 am

[…] buried toward the back of the bill that concerns federal oversight of subway safety. As I’ve mentioned before, a few Washington politicians led by Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski have decided that DC’s […]


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