Late last week, the dysfunctional members of Congress managed to come together for a few minutes to pass something resembling a federal transportation bill. The two-year measure is short on reform and couldn’t, for instance, find a way to bring tax breaks for transit riders in line with those for drivers. Steven Higashide offered up a transit advocate’s view on the bill at Mobilizing the Region yesterday, and I don’t have qualms with his analysis or conclusions.
I want to instead focus on an insidious provision 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 problems and everyone’s. When a few high-profile Metro crashes, caused generally by human incompetence and a poorly-designed system, made headlines, Mikulski sprung into action, and for three years, she’s been trying to foist federal safety standards onto subway systems that just do not need them.
Finally — and unfortunately — she succeeded this year, and the new transportation bill contains the National Public Transportation Safety Program. As with many federal mandates, these underfunded requirements will put some burden on local transit agencies. Once President Obama signs the Transportation Bill, the Secretary of Transportation will promulgate interim safety standards and a certification process. State agencies that want federal dollars will have to comply with these regulations or else forfeit the federal investments.
As a carrot, Mikulski has oh-so-generously dangled a whopping $66 million to be split up in whatever ways Ray LaHood deems necessary to help transit agencies to adopt the safety regulations. It’s a laughable contribution, but the Senator from Maryland didn’t seem to care.
“My promises made are promises kept,” she said in a statement. “After the tragic crash in June 2009, I promised two things to the workers at Metro and my constituents that ride Metro. One, I would deliver the $150 million in dedicated funding for Metro’s capital improvements in the annual spending bill which I have done every year. Two, pass legislation giving U.S. Department of Transportation the authority it needs to establish safety standards for metro systems across the country. Today, this legislation delivers on that promise. We always say a faithful nation will never forget. Then we move on and nothing is ever done. Well, not this time and not with this Senator.”
It’s hard to get around such woeful tunnel blindness. Mikulski and her fellow representatives seem to think that Washington’s problem is everyone’s when clearly it is not. So because their local papers featured stories of WMATA’s inept practices, they think everyone needs some help. Now, our MTA will likely be burdened with mandates it can’t fund and rules that limit future rolling stock upgrades. Our subway cars, already too heavy, may need to be heavier, slower and clunkier all because Washington, DC, couldn’t better manage its employees.
It’s telling that all representatives in praise of these standards cite to Washington’s accident record. In New York, we’re far less concerned with such safety issues but we’re going to have to pay anyway. Sometimes, no policy might be better than a bad one.