WASHINGTON – The Obama administration will propose that the federal government take over safety regulation of the nation’s subway and light-rail systems, responding to what it says is haphazard and ineffective oversight by state agencies.
Under the proposal, the U.S. Department of Transportation would do for transit what it does for airlines and Amtrak: set and enforce federal regulations to ensure that millions of passengers get to their destinations safely. Administration officials said the plan will be presented in coming weeks to Congress, which must approve a change in the law.
The proposal would affect every subway and light-rail system in the country, including large systems in Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Administration officials said they are responding to a growing number of collisions, derailments and worker fatalities on subways – and in particular to the fatal June 22 crash in the District of Columbia and failures in oversight that have surfaced in its wake.
“After the train crash, we were all sitting around here scratching our heads, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something about this,’ ” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview. “And we discovered that there’s not much we could do because the law wouldn’t allow us to do it.”
A spokeswoman for D.C.’s Metro system, Lisa Farbstein, said the agency had not seen details of the proposal. “The bottom line is we welcome additional safety oversight with open arms,” she said.
LaHood said he expects the proposal to be welcomed on Capitol Hill, but some Republicans said Saturday night that more federal oversight might not be the answer.
“The administration is right to raise this issue, but federal regulation should only apply to systems that cross state lines,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who had not been briefed on the plan.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said the proposal sounded like a credible way to fix a broken oversight system. “Without seeing the details, it would make sense,” Wolf said. “Some states have done a good job, while others have not. There needs to be consistent safety enforcement.”
Safety experts praised the initiative.
“It’s long overdue,” said Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board until August. “I applaud the secretary and his team for recognizing the gap in oversight in the current law. I hope that Congress will act on it swiftly.”
The federal government long has regulated the safe operation of airplanes, Amtrak and even ferries. But a law passed in 1965 prohibits federal regulation of subways. When that law was put into effect, there were only a handful of subways, and lawmakers reasoned that federal oversight would hamper their growth.