WASHINGTON, D.C. – More than three years after it took over safety oversight of Metro, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) certified the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission as Metro’s federally required state safety oversight organization on March 18.
The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) was created through identical legislation passed by Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia legislators. According to the legislation, the organization must be financially independent of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).
During the commission’s first meeting April 8, commissioners voted to close a few corrective action plans, marking them as being completed by WMATA.
Following three Orange Line train misroute reports, Commission Chairman Christopher Hart asked staff to research possible roles of employee fatigue in the trains being misrouted.
“We inherited several safety investigations (from FTA),” said Chief Executive Officer David L. Mayer.
Roadway worker protection and red signal overruns as well as unsecured equipment were among the Metro safety incidents reviewed by the new state-level safety oversight agency for WMTA. None of the incidents caused injuries, but they did involve employees failing to follow protocol and problems such as one piece of rail equipment hitting another.
Mayer said the commission has received some tips through its website about safety concerns to investigate.
“We are receiving some safety concerns, (but) I haven’t really seen anything that’s frivolous,” said Mayer, on the severity of these concerns.
Mayer added that WMSC has received a “handful” of tips, and WMSC plans to improve the website so more people can find it. The commission’s website is www.wmsc.gov.
Prior to the FTA takeover, the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC) had a list of many outstanding safety issues and corrective action plans, some of them a few years old. Corrective Action Plans remain, but FTA acting as the state oversight agency closed some of the CAPs by WMATA and marked them as complete.
“The TOC lacked specific statutory authority; it lacked a funding source, and it lacked operational expertise,” Mayer said. “The creation of the WMSC fixes all those deficiencies; we’re a completely different organization (from TOC) moving forward.”
FTA administrators said in various letters to Metro’s funding jurisdictions during approximately the past three years and five months that FTA would oversee only safety oversight until the jurisdictions created a new state safety oversight organization (SSO organization) and the organization met federal requirements.
Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld during a Metro board meeting on March 28 thanked leadership at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) as acting state-level safety oversight agency and the jurisdictions of the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland, following the certification of the new safety commission.
“This transition (of safety oversight) is the culmination of significant work, and I want to thank in particular the FTA, and Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams and the staff for the tremendous job they did during the last few years for the safety of the system,” Wiedefeld said. “We also appreciate the efforts of Metro’s jurisdictional partners…We look forward to working with the new commission and ensuring the safety and reliability of the Metrorail System,” Wiedefeld said.
Maryland, D.C. and Virginia passed identical legislation to create the organization in 2017. However, they would need another year to have the infrastructure of WMSC to put together and prepare to take over responsibilities from FTA before FTA would certify it.
FTA took over the role of state-level safety oversight of WMATA on Oct. 26, 2015, upon the instruction of then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.
The FTA, which typically does monitor safety issues in certain kinds of transportation companies across the United States, including WMATA, temporarily replaced the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC). A group of representatives from D.C., Maryland, Virginia and the federal government, who oversaw WMATA safety, had failed to resolve safety problems it had discovered within WMATA.
One of the factors leading to FTA taking over safety oversight responsibilities from the TOC was the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident Jan. 12, 2015, after which representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the Federal Transit Administration, said they were concerned about the quality of safety oversight of WMATA. During the incident, a Metro train filled will smoke near L’Enfant Plaza Station, leaving one woman dead and dozens injured.
Then acting FTA Administrator Therese McMillan wrote to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe on Feb. 8, 2016, to say that the Tri-state oversight committee continued to fail its responsibilities.
“FTA finds that the inability of the TOC to enforce its findings demonstrates that it remains incapable of providing adequate safety oversight consistent with prevention of substantial risk of death or personal injury, and thus FTA will continue to administer the state safety oversight program over WMATA,” wrote McMillan, about three months after FTA took over safety oversight of WMATA.
At the time of the takeover, Metro’s Board was searching for a new general manager. The board would hire Metro General Manager Wiedefeld later that year.