FTA, states strengthen SSO Programs; WMATA oversight transferred

Written by Andrew Corselli, Managing Editor
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WMATA Gallery Place station. William C. Vantuono photo.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced March 18 that it has partnered with the requisite 30 states to strengthen and certify 31 State Safety Oversight (SSO) Programs prior to the April 15 safety deadline, and is transferring WMATA safety oversight to the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC).

Federal public transportation law changes required states to enhance the oversight of rail transit systems. The SSO Final Rule included a statutorily required three-year compliance deadline; the rule applies to federally funded rail fixed-guideway public transportation systems including heavy rail, light rail, monorail and streetcar systems.

To push states further along in meeting the safety provisions, federal law authorized a formula grant program—since 2003, FTA has doled out approximately $136.1 million to eligible states to develop and implement a compliant SSO Program.

To achieve FTA certification, an SSO Program must meet several federal statutory requirements, including establishing an SSO agency that is financially and legally independent from the rail transit agencies it oversees. Also, a state has to ensure that its SSO agency adopts and enforces relevant federal and state safety laws; has investigatory authority; and has appropriate financial and human resources for the number, size and complexity of the rail systems within the state’s jurisdiction. Lastly, SSO agency personnel responsible for performing safety oversight activities are required to be properly trained.

If a state fails to meet the deadline, FTA would be prohibited from awarding any new federal transit funds to any of its transit agencies until certification was complete.

In a related development, FTA certified the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) State Safety Oversight (SSO) Program so that responsibility for direct safety oversight of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Metrorail system transfers from FTA to the WMSC.

In addition, approximately $48.5 million in FTA grant funding, withheld due to the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia missing a prior SSO Program certification deadline, is now available to transit agencies across the three jurisdictions to invest in public transportation.

The FTA-certified WMSC SSO Program “strengthens state safety oversight of Metrorail in several ways,” FTA said. “It ensures that the program adopts and enforces relevant federal and state safety laws, has the authority to investigate and enforce safety plans of WMATA Metrorail, is financially and legally independent from WMATA, and has a well-trained staff.”

FTA assumed temporary and direct safety oversight in October 2015 from the Tri‑State Oversight Committee, the previous SSO Agency. Since then, FTA verified that Metrorail has fully implemented 188 systemic safety improvements, and made progress on dozens of others, advancing a safer Metrorail system.

“FTA is certifying the WMSC to perform the direct safety oversight of WMATA Metrorail,” said FTA Executive Director Matthew J. Welbes.  “FTA appreciates the diligent cooperation of the WMSC during the transition process, and especially the actions and resources of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia in reaching this important safety milestone.”

While FTA will no longer have direct day-to-day safety oversight responsibility for Metrorail, it maintains its general safety authority for all State Safety Oversight Agencies and rail transit agencies across the country.

Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono contributed to this story.

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