Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

In 2009 I wrote that WMATA's regulatory oversight needed to be significantly improved, US DOT says the same in 2016

After the Fort Totten crash in 2009, which resulted in 9 deaths and many injuries, reported first by the Frederick News-Post, it was determined that the crash resulted from the inter-mixing of signaling equipment from different vendors--the equipment wasn't guaranteed for inter-operability.

It turns out that decades before, the BART system in the San Francisco Bay region had similar problems, but because of safety regulation by the California Public Utilities Commission, it was addressed, and redundant safety controls were implemented within the signaling system.

The Post also reported on the Tri-State Safety Committee, a regulatory body with no enforcement authority, which was created by DC, Maryland, and Virginia to oversee Metrorail.

In 2009, I suggested that to build accountability into the regulatory and oversight process for Metrorail, DC, Maryland, and Virginia merely had to come together and invest regulatory authority into the TSSC.

See "Missing the real issue about WMATA," July 27, 2009, and "Will nine deaths lead to a better governance, oversight, and management system for WMATA? Or not?," August 11, 2009.

They didn't.  And earlier this week, the US Department of Transportation said it would begin withholding a portion of funding to WMATA until the lack of regulatory oversight was corrected ("Federal funding for D.C., Va., Md. at risk due to lack of progress on Metro oversight," Washington Post).

From this week's Post article:
Late last year, Foxx transferred safety oversight of Metro’s rail operations to the FTA with the understanding that it would be temporary — until the three jurisdictions could develop a compact to create an oversight agency. The move was made after federal officials determined that the agency charged with the task, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), was woefully inadequate for the job.

But Foxx said federal officials recently learned from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments that the jurisdictions “do not expect to pursue final legislative action in 2016” to establish a safety oversight agency.

“This news was unexpected and disappointing,” Foxx wrote in the letter. ...

Some of the region’s leaders said Monday that they are taking steps to move Metro to a culture of safety but that they, too, are frustrated with the situation — and with the U.S. Transportation Department for pointing the finger at the District, Maryland and Virginia when the federal government also has a seat at the table to help solve Metro’s problems.

“While the nation awaits the FTA’s rules on state safety oversight entities, [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] has an oversight structure in their board of directors where the federal government can actually be helpful,” Bowser spokesman Michael Czin said. “Unfortunately, the federal government’s appointees, including the previous chairman, were obstacles to reform in 2015.”
As discussed in the reprints below, these issues date most recently to 2009, but clearly had been present earlier, and long before the Federal Government received the authority to appoint board members in 2010 ("GSA Appoints Director and Alternate Director to Metro Board," press release), and in any case, it is DC, Maryland and Virginia that are empowered to act to cure the defect of lack of regulatory oversight at the state/multi-state scale, not the federal government, which only stepped in recently because of a failure to act by the states in the face of continuing problems.

-- State Safety Oversight Program, Federal Transit Administration
-- Rail Transit Safety Action Plan, Federal Transit Administration, 2006.  From the document:

Top Ten Priorities
The following priorities have been identified for FTA’s Safety Action Plan:
• Priority Number 1: Reducing Collisions with Other Vehicles
• Priority Number 2: Reducing Collisions with Pedestrians and Trespassers
• Priority Number 3: Improving Compliance with Operating and Maintenance Rules
• Priority Number 4: Reducing the Impacts of Fatigue on Transit Workers
• Priority Number 5: Reducing Unsafe Acts by Passengers in Transit Stations
• Priority Number 6: Improving Safety of Transit Workers
• Priority Number 7: Improving Safety for Passengers with Disabilities
• Priority Number 8: Removing Debris from Tracks and Stations
• Priority Number 9: Improving Emergency Response Procedures
• Priority Number 10: Improving Safety Data Acquisition and Analysis

Reprint from Will nine deaths lead to a better governance, oversight, and management system for WMATA? Or not?, August 11, 2009

A few weeks ago I wrote an entry commenting that the focus on WMATA not having a dedicated funding stream misses the real point about overall governance, management, and oversight.

The fact that BART in the San Francisco Bay region is overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission, while WMATA has no real regulatory oversight is troubling.

The Post editorializes about this today, in "Unsafe, Unaware, Unscrutinized: Is Metro's lack of effective oversight contributing to its safety problems," in response to Sunday's article about the equivalent of a voluntary oversight board with no authority, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, in the Sunday paper, "Subway Safety Panel Foiled by Constraints: 12-Year-Old Oversight Committee Has Little Influence."

It might not be so bad if absolute excellence was demanded throughout the organization. It's not.

I think it's clear that getting rid of the engineering and construction people (partly in 2003, and then after the current General Manager came on board, see "Metro to Cut Construction Staff to Help Close Budget Gap" from March 2007 and "Improved Safety and Service Are Focus of Reorganization, Chief Says" from April 2007, from the Post) likely has removed a level of expertise within the organization concerning rail operations.

Recent failures in the S-Bahn system in Berlin--none of the failures led to casualties!!!!--resulted in wholesale change in the management of the transit system. See "Safety Issues Ground Hundreds Of Berlin S-Bahn Trains" from the German radio network NDR. From the story:
The executive management of S-Bahn Berlin was asked to resign this past week: included among the casualties are Tobias Heinemann (chief officer), Thomas Prechtl (head of finance), Olaf Hagenauer (personal director) and just recently hired technical director Peter Büsing.

Allegedly the company ignored a safety directive issued by the EBA, the German equivalent of the U.S. [Federal Railroad Administration], after the May 1st incident in Berlin-Kaulsdorf station. The EBA required that the company perform a repetitive inspection of all wheels of similar design as the failed wheel every seven days. The company assured the EBA that it would comply with the new safety directive, but an audit by the EBA on the 29th of June determined that the company had mostly ignored the safety directive.
The problems with WMATA have led Maryland's MTA to back off from saying that the Purple Line would be integrated into the WMATA transit system and managed and operated by WMATA after it is constructed. See the Dr. Gridlock column from Sunday, "Purple Line and Metro: Will They Work Together?," versus the letter from then Maryland Secretary of Transportation Porcari to the Town of Chevy Chase from May 2008 , which stated:
2. The fare and transfer policy for this corridor has not yet been established. The MTA views the Purple Line and Metrorail system as part of an overall system of transit service in the Washington area. Future policies, should the Purple Line be constructed, are expected to reflect that view and include the use of modern fare collections methods such as Smartcards. Therefore, the report’s assertion regarding full transit fares for both systems in calculating the cost of a transfer is a policy decision that cannot be assumed;
which can be construed to imply that WMATA would end up integrating this light rail line into its transit system, comparable to how after the Dulles corridor (Silver Line) extension is constructed not by WMATA but by the State of Virginia it will be integrated into the WMATA subway system.

Not now, or at least not while WMATA's management capabilities are called into question. (And remember the concerns expressed by the Federal Transit Administration over the expansion of the system via the Silver Line, versus WMATA focusing on current operations, "Feds Slam Dulles Rail Project" from the Dr. Gridlock Get There blog.)

Reprint: Missing the real issue about WMATA, July 27, 2009

The Washington Post editorialized, in "A Broken Metro‎," once again about how all of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's problems have to do with the lack of a dedicated funding stream.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as the newspaper's own reporting ought to be communicating to us.

Here are the issues with WMATA:

- general vision and leadership
- the governance structure (members appointed to the board by the various jurisdictions that are members of the WMATA Compact--but too many of them have overly constrained worldviews about what they are doing and who they truly represent)
- the lack of a real system of regulatory oversight*
- funding of current operational deficits**
- funding of capital improvements***
- management of the organization
- operation of the organization
- how the organization treats and serves riders.

* The article in the Post about how BART has a redundant train control system to ensure that all trains are accounted for on the system at all times off-handedly mentioned that BART is under the oversight of the California Public Utilities Commission. See "Sister Transit System Took Steps to Counter Hazard: BART Saw Circuit Problem At Center of Metro Probe."

From the article:
Shortly after BART started operating in 1972, it installed a backup system. Initial tests of the main train protection system failed to detect the presence of a train in a few instances, according to Mike Healey, a longtime BART spokesman who retired in 2005. A subsequent 1972 BART accident involving a train that mistakenly received a command to double its speed instead of slowing down, sending the train off track and into a parking lot, was the catalyst "to have some redundancy to back up the primary train protection system," Healey said...

Willard Wattenburg, an electrical engineer and inventor retired from the University of California at Berkeley, said intermittent failures were frequent on BART in the early 1970s. Wattenburg analyzed BART's initial design for the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates transit systems, and crafted some corrections. BART officials at the time said the failures were flukes, but regulators insisted on the design changes.
This used to be the case for the old streetcar system, which was overseen by the DC Public Service Commission.

There needs to be a joint [regulatory] commission, with appointees from DC, MD, and VA, to oversee the system and ensure that it meets the highest operational[-safety] standards.

** Dedicated funding is important but is more focused on managing annual operating budgets. The cost of providing transit is greater than farebox and other revenues. Therefore, funds are provided by the member jurisdictions of the WMATA "Compact" to make up the difference.

*** While the annual appropriations include some money for capital improvements, it's never enough, especially when it comes to system expansion, or replacing large amounts of rolling stock.

Dedicated funding gets at just a little bit of the issues that are in play with WMATA generally.

We can argue that the accident is an indicator of a far bigger systems failure than the circuit system.

That's what we should be coming to realize as we are learning about the systematic failures of this system and the neglect of dealing with it--something that predates General Manager John Catoe.

See "Investigators: Metro equipment at crash problematic for 18 months," "Investigators examining glitches around system" AND ESPECIALLY THIS STORY "Metro operator: Recent crash failure echoes 2005 near-miss" from the Examiner.

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At 8:24 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

This is a governance crisis -- it is time for wmata to grow up and not be the ugly stepchild of DC, the feds, maryland and Virginia.

Again, I think some people have been thinking that for a while, which is why the dedicated funding issue is about securing the ability of WMATA to raise more debt on its own and not rely on its parents for an allowance.

In a perfect world DC would start a world class safety agency and oversee WMATA. Virginia and Maryland could contact out standards to the DC agency.

The reality is a DC safety agency would be bottom of the barrel, and everyone knows it.

We are probably going to be stuck with FTA for a long time.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the quote in this article from a DC representative is very similar to the quote from MB in the article about the resignation of the medical director of EMS.

Very very concerning, the way that how "the city" looks at these kinds of issues.

Anyway, I've been mulling over writing a piece about how the failure of WMATA should be recognized as a crisis for DC, because DC's competitive advantage within the regional landscape (again, for me region means two or more metropolitan areas) is a sustainable mobility "platform" founded on a robust transit network possessing both network breadth and depth.

Without that, DC fails. Comparable to how people in Flint are at risk from the water supply impacting their ability to get mortgages, because financial institutions think the water system is a major risk factor, although in our case, people will still get mortgages.

But without a great transit system, living and working in DC becomes much more of a slog. Although as we add population, more amenities become available locally and conveniently, which helps to slough off some of the problems resulting from inadequate transit.

I don't think the elected officials get this.

... just like in the "heralded" economic development document in the Gray Administration, transit was mentioned something like 5 times total (doing a word search) with minimal discussion of substance, and no connection-conception of transit being fundamental to the city's economic and competitive advantage.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

but I think you're right about the independent funding as a way to refocus and be less political and more governance focused.

Although there is no guarantee that would happen.

And the problem with such revenue streams is that they are subject to the vicissitudes of the economy.

Virtually every transit system that "benefited" from such funding mechanisms was absolutely CRUSHED during the recession and they are mostly still dealing with the aftereffects.

That includes Portland, Seattle, Pittsburgh. LA voted for more taxes, so recently has Phoenix.

So it isn't a panacea either.

2. Plus an independent agency can still waste $. Today's Sun-Times--I haven't read the story yet--has an investigative piece on the big pensions given to past CTA board members. WTF. Why did they get pensions?

3. I still haven't gotten around to writing about how BART directors are elected. I'm on the e-list of one of them. I reached out to him after reading about his initiative to post the names, pictures, and contact info of Board directors in stations.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... Port Authority. Which is basically a good vehicle, provided it's not allowed to become a pet and plaything of the respective governors.

2. I haven't written about the changes in Montreal. again, all within one "state." But they are separating the regional planning from the regional transit provision. And intending to merge the regional non city transit into one agency, with the railroad. Letting Montreal, Laval, and Longueil remain independent.

I don't know how good that is. The railroad might not work so well in the same agency running the non-city transit systems.

But the point about planning and operation and governance is important.

Maybe the solution is to create a multistate MTA for the DC region, including VRE, MARC, and WMATA.

I can't see it happening though.

cf. my RACER concept for the railroads.

At 9:33 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

"...which can be construed to imply that WMATA would end up integrating this light rail line into its transit system, comparable to how after the Dulles corridor (Silver Line) extension is constructed not by WMATA but by the State of Virginia it will be integrated into the WMATA subway system."

This was never the plan with the Purple Line, and it was always the plan with the Silver Line.

The Silver Line assumed the infrastructure ownership would be transfered to WMATA; and that WMATA would be responsible for all operations.

The Purple line may be integrated with fares and passenger experience, but it was never assumed to be transfered to WMATA at all.

I also don't think Metro's recent issues have changed any assumptions about the Purple Line's fare structure or operating plan.

At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I don't disagree with you. But I do think that things could change with the Hogan Administration, although things could change effective with the next state govt. administration, whatever that may be.

2. Partly though because WMATA has no interest in taking on operating light rail, just like they have no interest in running the proposed gondola/aerial tram system in Georgetown.

They are fine with more heavy rail.


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