My Problem With Federal Oversight of the DC Metro

It solves the wrong problem. While the death of a rider in D.C.’s Metro during a tunnel fire received national attention, safety isn’t the biggest problem: it’s the crappy service and reliability. Unfortunately, the Federal Transportation Administration has essentially taken over the D.C. Metro, and in the classic plantation owner mentality* that has long characterized the federal government’s relationship with the city, has decreed that safety will be paramount above all (boldface mine):

Metro has severe problems with operations, with finances, with communication, and with safety. The agency needs to improve in all of those areas, all at the same time. But in a recent op-ed, Foxx, whose agency just took over safety oversight, says the agency may only work on safety, seemingly to the exclusion of all else.

We all want Metro to be safe, and the agency has earned our anger at its recent behavior. However, it’s not actually unsafe today, and if the federal government insists it drop everything to work on safety without also working on the immediate and long-term problems with the quality of the service, we may soon find ourselves with a much less useful transit system and an overall transportation network that is less safe rather than more….

Foxx’s agency recently took over Metro safety oversight through the Federal Transit Administration, which regulates US transit systems. Metro is the first and only transit system where FTA is directly monitoring safety.

This situation arose because the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the joint entity between DC, Maryland, and Virginia which was supposed to be monitoring safety, dropped the ball multiple times over the past few years. The National Transportation Safety Board suggested giving oversight to the Federal Railroad Admnistration, which monitors safety on commuter and freight railroads, but Foxx opted to give it to the FTA instead.

This weekend, he published an op-ed explaining just what he expects of Metro. And it amounts to insisting Metro not do a single thing except work on safety until FTA is 100% satisfied.

Here are a few quotes:

“The FTA … will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements.”
“We may also require periodic closures of some Metro facilities to ensure safety measures are implemented.”
“There will be no new projects until Metro completes its punch list.”
“Metro can forget any new rail-expansion projects until it meets our safety standards.”

You might say, what’s wrong with that? Everyone agrees safety is the most important priority—including the WMATA Board. But there’s a huge difference between something being top priority and being the only priority.

The greatest problem Metro faces isn’t safety–though it is an issue, but service and reliability. I don’t mind holding new projects until safety measures are implemented, but when Foxx writes, “The FTA has a significant enforcement tool through controlling Metro’s federal grants and will not allow federal dollars to go to Metro for any activity other than safety improvements”, what he means is that there will be no improvement in scheduling until all safety issues are met. Foxx is punishing riders for the failures of the Metro board and of local politicians who have failed to adequately oversee and fund D.C. Metro.

It’s also an idiotic philosophy of safety:

If riding Metro actually posed a serious risk of injury, then I’d be the first to say shut it down until it’s safe. But it’s pretty darn safe now.

It’s terrible that a woman died of smoke inhalation at L’Enfant Plaza in January, and even more unforgivable that Metro had been keeping quiet about the fact that radios didn’t work. WMATA needs to not only fix the problems that led to this, but also be far more proactive about identifying, disclosing, and fixing safety risks.

Still, you have to put this in a bit of perspective. Just this weekend, people driving killed one person walking and two people biking. Crashes that kill drivers on high-speed roads are a sadly common feature in the news.

If platforms get more crowded, that will harm safety too, perhaps far more than whatever a long-term shutdown or slowdown will fix. Same if people switch to driving, where they might imperil not only themselves but others. Shutting down night Metro service might help with repairs but also increase drunk driving, for instance.

Anthony Foxx has been a strong proponent of road safety, no doubt, and deserves credit for it. Still, none of us expects him to write that “America can forget any new road-expansion projects until the roads meet our safety standards.”

Even if he wanted to say that, Congress wouldn’t allow it. And not just Republicans; Senator Barbara Mikulski has been the first to be outraged beyond belief at any safety lapse at Metro but quiet on both Metro’s service lapses and road safety. Foxx is just hearing the message loud and clear.

I don’t think we’ve hit the point of “negative death spiral” yet, but the biggest challenge Metro faces is not convincing customers to find another alternative–which in most cases, will be driving. A cover-your-ass approach is insufficient to the tasks–note the plural–at hand. While those of us living in the mainland colony can’t do something, maybe some residents of Maryland and Virginia could ask their representatives a question or two?

This is no way to run a railroad.

*In 1967, D.C.’s first black mayor was sent a truckload of watermelons by the segregationist–that is, racist–Congressman John McMillan. Things have improved sine then, but, to a considerable extent, that’s damning with faint praise.

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