Thursday, February 11, 2010

Federal Rail Transit Safety Legislation

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood transmitted a formal legislative proposal to Congress on December 7, 2009 to increase safety and security on the nation's public transit systems. The legislation recognizes that, compared to other federal transportation oversight programs (highways, railroads, air), federal regulation of public transit safety is rather ad-hoc.

Currently, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) uses its limited authority in this arena to delegate safety oversight of transit system to individual states, with no uniform safety practices for rail transit systems. In turn, understaffed and underfunded states view the federal safety program as an unfunded mandate. Enforcement is weak at best, and high-risk safety issues may go unidentified and uncorrected.

At this time, there are 27 separate State programs or agencies providing safety regulation for public transit systems (for example, the California Public Utilities Commission) resulting in inefficiency, inconsistent practices and questionable effectiveness. Moreover, increasing transit ridership and utilization, along with reduced local funding and aging infrastructure, present public transportation providers with new and difficult safety challenges that will increase over time.

The legislation would:
  1. Require the Secretary of Transportation to establish and enforce minimum Federal safety standards for rail transit systems not regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), with options to establish a safety program for public transportation bus systems.
  2. Establish a program whereby a State would be eligible for Federal transit assistance to carry out a Federally-approved public transportation safety program. Apparently this would include entail delegating federal staff (perhaps through FTA) to individual agencies, much like the Project Management Oversight program which oversees transit capital programs supported by federal investment.
  3. Ensure "firewalls" are in place between the oversight agency and the transit systems it oversees.
What are your thoughts on this proposed legislation? Will this make a transit agency's safety mandate more or less difficult to support/enforce? What opportunities for increased or redirected investment might this provide, for instance for transit capital spending?

As always, we welcome your thoughts.


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