Government Issues

FTA to withhold funding from D.C., Md. and Va. pending safety oversight program

Posted on February 13, 2017

Larry Levine
Larry Levine

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) notified the transit systems in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia that effective immediately it will withhold 5% of Fiscal Year 2017 transit formula funds until a new State Safety Oversight Program (SSOP) is certified for the rail operations of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). The funds will be withheld until the jurisdictions pass identical legislation and meet related requirements in order for FTA to certify a new SSOP for WMATA Metrorail.

In accordance with Federal law, on Feb. 8, FTA informed the Governors and the Mayor that failure to obtain a certified SSOP for the WMATA Metrorail system by Feb. 9, may result in the withholding of federal transit funds. These funds can be restored once the jurisdictions establish a federally-compliant, FTA-certified SSOP.

The action means FTA immediately will withhold 5% of Fiscal Year 2017 Urbanized Area formula funds from eight recipients of FTA funds in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. These recipients allocate the funding to transit agencies in their respective areas. Under the current continuing budget resolution through April 28, 2017, this amounts to approximately $8.9 million, in total, for the two states and the district. Based on a full-year appropriation, the total amount that may be withheld in Fiscal Year 2017 is estimated at approximately $15 million.

"By law, states have the primary responsibility for overseeing the safe operation of their rail transit systems, not only for riders but for transit operators and workers," said FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes. "FTA has been providing oversight for WMATA Metrorail since October 2015, but the role is temporary. We will continue to direct safety oversight of Metrorail only until the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia step up and establish an FTA-certified State Safety Oversight Program."

The June 2009 Fort Totten collision of two Metrorail trains, resulting in nine fatalities and dozens of injuries, exposed the inadequacy of the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), the State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA) established and operated by Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Since April 2010, the three jurisdictions have recognized the need for the creation of a new, stronger, and more effective oversight program for Metrorail, but nearly seven years later it has not been established. During this period, serious safety incidents continued to occur on the Metrorail system. Notably, the jurisdictions did not undertake meaningful efforts towards establishing a new SSOP and crafting supporting legislation until after the FTA assumed safety oversight responsibilities from the TOC.

On October 9, 2015, following a number of accidents, incidents and a demonstrated pattern of safety lapses involving WMATA’s Metrorail system, the U.S. Department of Transportation determined that the TOC was ineffective at providing adequate safety oversight consistent with prevention of substantial risk of death or personal injury and FTA immediately assumed the lead responsibility for safety oversight until the three jurisdictions replaced the TOC with a fully compliant SSOA.

In order for FTA to certify a State Safety Oversight Program for WMATA Metrorail, the jurisdictions must still take several key actions, including:

  • Passing identical legislation by Maryland and Virginia state legislatures and the District of Columbia, and signed by the state Governors and District Mayor.
  • Submitting a certification application and documentation to FTA showing that the SSOA has independence from the rail transit system it oversees; enforcement and investigation authority; adequate staffing and training; FTA grant recipient status; and has met general program requirements.
  • Participating in a transitional hand-off period whereby FTA officials work side-by-side with new SSOA officials to ensure they are capable of conducting all oversight responsibilities required by Federal law.
  • Verifying with FTA that the new SSOA’s enforcement and oversight capabilities, as well as their inspection, investigation and audit activities are adequate and meet all statutory requirements.

Strengthening State Safety Oversight is part of a comprehensive public transportation safety program that Congress required FTA to establish in MAP-21 and reauthorized and strengthened in the FAST Act.

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