Federal Transit Administration's stepping in to regulate the safety elements of WMATA mark of a failure in regulatory oversight by DC, Maryland, and Virginia
WMATA, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, operator of Metrorail heavy rail transit service service DC and its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, has fallen through the cracks in terms of regulatory oversight.
"Subway Safety Panel Foiled by Constraints: 12-Year-Old Oversight Committee Has Little Influence.," Washington Post, 2009).
NTSB recommends FRA be given oversight authority over WMATA. In the face of multiple safety failures in the system over the past 18 months, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration be given the authority to regulate WMATA ("NTSB wants feds to take of D.C. Metro system," USA Today), even though it isn't a traditional railroad, because the Federal Transit Administration isn't set up to provide day-in, day-out regulatory oversight of individual transit systems.
USDOT steps in because DC-Maryland-Virginia failed to provide adequate oversight. The USDOT rejected that recommendation, and instead announced on Friday that the USDOT/FTA would provide regulatory oversight ("Federal agency to supervise Metro safety," Washington Post).
In the old days, state regulatory authorities oversaw transit systems. In the days when transit systems were privately owned, state-based regulatory authorities regulated these firms. These agencies, usually called "Public Service Commissions," regulated all "utilities," not just electricity, telephone, and natural gas, but transit as well (not railroads, which were regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission).
This authority wasn't limited to regulating pricing of service, but included safety matters also.
Today, most of these agencies no longer regulate transit systems in a substantive way, because transit agencies are public agencies for the most part, and are regulated in part by the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration.
But that was a fault of the states failing to put forward the right regulations, authority, and oversight structures.
California Public Utilities Commission never gave up responsibility for regulating local transit systems. California's Public Utilities Commission never gave up its authority to regulate transit systems, and while the operation of transit systems in California hasn't been problem free, it happens that some of the problems resulting in death on the WMATA system have been avoided by the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART), because of the level of oversight provided by CPUC.
I wrote about the regulatory system in CPUC vs. the DC-Maryland-Virginia area nine times in 2009, after the Fort Totten crash, which resulted in
-- Another example that something "unique" isn't necessarily "exceptional"
-- Missing the real issue about WMATA
-- Will nine deaths lead to a better governance, oversight, and management system for WMATA? Or not?
-- The webpage of the California Public Utilities Commission oversight of rail transit systems
-- Oversight is necessary for business and government
-- Federal safety regulation of local transit systems
WMATA had experienced multiple failures with this equipment before the fatal crash, although in each previous situation, train operators avoided catastrophe by stopping the train short of a crash.
Because no fatalities resulted from those incidents, the problem was discounted, treated as an anomaly, rather than inherent within the system.
DC-Maryland-Virginia failed to address their regulatory responsibilities for WMATA. Using the California Public Utilities Commission as an example of national best practice, in the various posts from 2009, I wrote something like this:
In our region, I would recommend that DC, Maryland and Virginia set up a supra-regulatory committee as a joint venture, one that operates within the utilities oversight body of each jurisdiction, tasked with the regulation of rail transit systems. That would mean subway and light rail in Baltimore, passenger railroad services in Maryland and Virginia, heavy, light rail, and streetcar service in Metropolitan Washington, and light rail in Hampton Roads in Virginia.DC, Maryland, and Virginia had 6 years to act on this. They didn't.
Given the continued failures, the USDOT/FTA was forced to step in.