Feds seeking to take over safety oversight of MARTA, other rail systems

Led by the Obama Administration, federal regulators are taking steps to increase federal safety standards and oversight for commuter rail operations nationwide, including Atlanta's MARTA system.

"Safety is our number one priority when it comes to planes, trains and automobiles," federal Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "It only makes sense that we should be looking out for passengers who ride subways too."

The White House is currently reviewing plans from LaHood that would establish new minimum safety standards for rail systems like MARTA and enforce them through a beefed-up Federal Transit Administration. The changes would up end a 1965 law prohibiting the federal government from regulating subways.

The plans would let Georgia and other states continue to oversee the safety of its rail systems -- but only if they meet federal standards on staffing -- standards Georgia currently doesn't meet. Plans also call for more federal funding to help states pay for increased rail safety oversight.

Federal transportation officials are scheduled to begin briefing Congress on their plans on Dec. 8.

What they're trying to fix is a mish-mash of state and federal regulations, lax safety oversight procedures and inadequate staffing and resources of the type that caused the deadly collision of two Metro system trains in northwest Washington on June 22.

Unlike Washington's Metro, MARTA has one of the best safety records of any major rail system in America. It hasn't had a major accident in years.

But federal DOT reviews have found that MARTA's safety oversight is lacking in many areas, and that it could use the sort of federal oversight and funding that lawmakers are considering.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has officially overseen the safety and security of MARTA since 1998, though rail safety is such a small part of the agency that even some at GDOT and MARTA don't know about it.

GDOT does safety reviews of MARTA every three years. The last was in June 2007, and the next won't be until  June 2010.

GDOT also is severely understaffed when it comes to rail safety oversight. It has one employee who spends only part of his time on making sure MARTA operates safely. The agency also pays $140,000 a year for an outside consultant.

A February 2008 federal audit of GDOT found that transit program manager Steve Kish spends an average of 4 hours per week on MARTA safety issues, which auditors deemed as insufficient and out of compliance with federal guidelines.

"The resource level that GDOT allocates … is well below the recommended level, for an oversight agency responsible for a rail transit agency the size of (MARTA)," federal auditors wrote. The audit did not mention how many employees should be in place for oversight.

The February 2008 audit also found that MARTA and GDOT officials needed to meet more regularly and that MARTA needed to submit records on safety reviews and plans to GDOT.

Those items and others have been addressed, according to Kish. But almost two years later, GDOT still hasn't increased staffing or other resources for rail safety.

"It's a challenge, especially in these tough economic times … but I think we'll have that here very shortly," said Kish, who also is responsible for overseeing a state program that helps towns and rural areas operate bus and van lines.

Earlier this week, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman specifically mentioned MARTA as she explained why she believes federal rail safety standards are needed.

"The framework … for oversight for transit (nationally) is not very robust," Hersman said in a speech at the National Press Club. "It's not funded, it's not supported, and it’s different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

"The BART trains, the (Washington, D.C.) Metro trains, the MBTA trains up in Boston, the MARTA trains down in Atlanta, none of them have consistent crash-worthiness standards," she said. "That doesn’t make any sense."

At MARTA, officials say they welcome more federal safety oversight.

"We're supportive of anything that is for enhancing safety of our system," said Dwight Ferrell, Marta's deputy general manager and chief operating officer.

GDOT's Kish said he wouldn't object to new federal regulations and more help from federal regulators -- as long as the federal government also sets aside the money to pay for it. Currently, he said, his office gets no federal funding. His salary and that of his consultant are paid by the state's general revenue funds, he said.

But some lawmakers say they're not sure the federal government needs to be taking over anything else -- including rail systems.

"I don't know that the federal government needs to have oversight over anything else right now," said U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican.

Westmoreland is the only Georgia member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which will take up the federal DOT's plans on Dec. 8.

Like others, Westmoreland said MARTA's good track record on safety shows that it must be doing something right.

"I don't mind them (DOT) having safety standards," he said. "I just don't know if it will make any difference."

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