After a spate of high-profile accidents on the Washington-area Metro system, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently proposed legislation to make oversight of transit rail safety the responsibility of the federal government rather than the states. Under current law the Federal Transit Administration is prohibited from directly regulating the nation's public transit systems. Instead, they are regulated through the FTA's State Safety Oversight program, which calls for the states to set their own safety standards and implement rail safety oversight and audit programs to measure compliance. However, the legal authorities, budgets and staff levels of the various state oversight agencies vary widely across the country.
The administration's proposed Public Transportation Safety Program Act of 2009 would authorize the Department of Transportation to set minimum safety standards for all rail systems nationwide, as well as give the department the option of creating a safety program for public bus systems. The bill would allow states to receive federal assistance to state and train state oversight personnel to enforce the new rules, and require that state safety agencies be financially independent from the transit systems they oversee.
Has the time come for the federal government to take over safety regulation of local rail transit systems, or does the existing state-based system simply need to be improved and better funded? What is the appropriate federal role in ensuring rail transit safety?