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U.S. may regulate subways : Citing safety concerns, the Transportation Dept. will propose assuming oversight of municipal systems.

November 15, 2009|Washington Post

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 said was haphazard and ineffective oversight by state agencies.

Under the proposal, the 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 would 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 Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, New York and Boston.

Administration officials said they were responding to a growing number of collisions, derailments and worker fatalities on subways -- in particular to the fatal June 22 crash on Washington's subway system 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."

LaHood said he expected 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 R. 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."

In Los Angeles, the scheme would most directly affect the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the region's subway and light rail lines. The California Public Utilities Commission has some oversight responsibilities for those systems and recently gave final approval to grade crossings on the new Eastside extension of the Gold Line. But the state agency has other responsibilities and limited staff to monitor rail transit.

Richard Katz, a member of both the MTA and Metrolink commuter rail boards, expressed surprise at the proposal, saying Los Angeles' subway and light rail service has a good safety record.

"Another set of eyes on the system, from a safety standpoint, is always a benefit," he said. "But oversight itself doesn't make anything safer. If Washington really wants to make these systems safer, they need to make the dollars available" for key upgrades, he said, such as the proposed high-tech train control system being sought for Metrolink.

Crucial details of the plan remained unclear, including how much it would cost, where the money would come from, how the federal government would enforce its rules and whether it was equipped to carry out enhanced oversight. Existing state oversight bodies could remain in place to enforce the new regulations, but would need to meet federal standards and gain federal approval.

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Times staff writer Rich Connell contributed to this report.

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