WASHINGTON - The Obama administration asked Congress yesterday to give the federal government power to oversee the safety of subways, light rail, and other urban train systems.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in testimony before a House panel, outlined a plan to give the Federal Transit Administration authority to set standards for and inspect the nation's 50 local rail transit systems in 27 states.
Currently there are no nationwide minimum standards for rail transit safety, only voluntary standards produced by industry groups.
The administration sent a legislative proposal to House and Senate leaders that would effectively eliminate a legal prohibition in place since 1965 that prevents the federal government from imposing broad transit safety standards.
LaHood also announced the formation of an advisory committee to help develop new safety regulations.
The bill would allow states to receive federal transit assistance to staff and train safety inspectors to enforce regulations. States would have to show they have adequate safety programs in place in order to receive federal transit aid.
State agencies conducting oversight would be required to be financially independent from the transit systems they oversee. At some transit agencies, safety inspectors rely on the systems they oversee for their salaries.
"The current system for federal rail transit safety oversight is weak and inadequate and does not guarantee a consistent level of safety for transit passengers," LaHood said.
The bill would also give the secretary of transportation the option to establish a safety program for public bus systems.
Peter Rogoff, head of the transit administration, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that with the exception of California, which he called the "gold standard," states had an average of less than one safety inspector per rail transit system.
Transit systems carry 14 million passengers daily. That's more than airlines or long-distance passenger railroads, which both get federal safety oversight.
Nine people were killed and 70 injured in a subway accident in Washington in June. There have also been recent high-profile accidents on rail transit systems in San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago.