FTA MAP-21 Safety Oversight Questions and Answers

Questions Answers
How does MAP-21 expand FTA’s safety authority?

While passengers who travel by airplane, railroad, motorcoach, and oceangoing vessels have had the assurance that their carriers were required to be in compliance with federal safety regulations, there were no such safety regulations for public transportation.

In fact, since 1964 the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the agency that administers federal assistance for the nation’s transit systems, had been prohibited by law from exercising safety authority over those very systems. This gap in federal authority led to a very confusing patchwork of transit safety standards and oversight from state to state.

MAP-21 now grants FTA the authority to establish and enforce a new comprehensive national transit safety and oversight framework. The law requires, among other things, that FTA develop a National Public Transportation Safety Plan and update the State Safety Oversight (SSO) Program to ensure that rail transit systems are meeting basic, common-sense safety requirements. The law also includes important new safety provisions for all public transit operators.

How has FTA prepared for this big shift in focus? What steps have you taken to implement the law?

When Secretary LaHood first put transit safety legislation before Congress in 2009, he also formed the Transit Rail Safety Advisory Committee (TRACS), made up of experts from transit agencies, labor, academia, and other stakeholder groups around the country. TRACS has been working for the last two years so that we’d be able to hit the ground running when we finally got safety authority.

We now do have a variety of forms of safety authority, and the work that TRACS has done is going to help us immensely as we move forward to implement the safety provisions of MAP-21.

What is your time frame for rulemaking? While it’s too early to provide an exact timeframe for the several rulemakings required by MAP-21, we know that as FTA moves forward we will be asking for input from our stakeholders. We will also have to consider things like potential conflicts with state and local regulations, potential conflicts and related responsibilities with other executive agencies’ jurisdictions, established rules from other modes of transportation, NTSB recommendations, transit industry best practices, and international initiatives, to name a few.
Are you going to be taking over safety oversight from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration, and other agencies that have had jurisdiction in the past?

No. The NTSB will continue to investigate and determine the cause of specific accidents, and then issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing accidents in the future. FTA now has the authority to partner with NTSB in the investigation, as well as to direct transit agencies to act on NTSB recommendations.

Where there is jurisdictional overlap, such as with the Federal Railroad Administration’s regulation of railroads and the United States Coast Guard’s regulation of ferries, we will need to consider established rules and regulations, as well as to address potential conflicts and parallel responsibilities with those agencies.

What will be your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge will be to assist our grantees develop and implement improved safety systems and practices to prevent and mitigate rail transit accidents. Currently there are twenty-seven very different state agencies that have been overseeing rail systems in their jurisdictions, many of which are understaffed and ineffective, and even lack the necessary authority from their own state legislatures to compel the attention of the transit agencies they oversee.

MAP-21 grants FTA the authority to rectify that, and, while bus safety is also important, rail is where we will be focusing much or our attention at first. We’ll continue to work through these state agencies to do the job, but we will certify that they are adequate, will oversee their implementation, and will also provide federal funding for them.

There are so many different transit authorities in the nation. How are you working with them? Transit agencies vary widely, so a one-size-fits-all approach simply will not work. We have a saying that goes, “When you’ve seen one transit agency, you’ve seen one transit agency.” There are huge multi-modal operations like MARTA in Atlanta, for example, that consists of nearly 50 miles of rail and more than 500 buses, to small agencies that might consist of a handful of shuttle vans. That’s why we are working with our stakeholders, including transit agencies themselves, to craft a safety program that makes sense for the various modes, geographic locations, and sizes of our nation’s transit facilities. And since we are starting with a blank slate when it comes to federal transit safety regulation, this gives us an opportunity to first put a framework in place that will be appropriate for all types and sizes of public transportation systems.
How do you determine where transit agencies are most vulnerable?

Safety vulnerabilities are going to differ from one transit agency to the next. For one, it might be driver training. For another, it might be the track, or the railcars, or other supporting infrastructure. The challenge is to help transit agencies determine what these vulnerabilities are in the most cost-effective manner possible, and not require them to spend a lot of time and money gathering meaningless data.

The starting place for each transit agency to identify its own safety vulnerabilities is to begin collecting the right kinds of data, and then to correctly analyze that data.

As you begin to set federal safety standards for mass transit, are you starting from scratch, or are you able to borrow from other types of public transport such as commercial aviation?

Keep in mind that FTA is not trying to create yet another thick federal “rulebook.” Instead, we will be looking to incorporate outcome-oriented, cost-effective, and meaningful 21st Century safety solutions that recognize the unique challenges each transit agency faces.

Our effort to implement an innovative and effective transit safety program will be done through a rational and tailored approach, applying continuous evaluation and improvement. This approach will require input from a broad range of transit stakeholders.

What lessons can you apply from the challenges the federal government has experienced in regulating other forms of transportation?

Up until now, there has been an inherent conflict of interest in how state transit safety oversight agencies were funded. Some actually derived their funds from the transit agencies they oversee, and we don’t allow that in any other area of federal safety oversight.

We don’t let an airline decide whether the FAA inspectors are going to get paid, and FRA inspectors aren’t beholden to freight railroads for their salary. Under MAP-21, this situation is rectified, because state safety oversight authorities will receive their funding directly from FTA.

What “carrots and sticks” does the law give you to incentivize transit authorities to make those changes? For example, can you fine them? Can you decertify them? Before MAP-21, FTA was essentially a $10.5 billion carrot with no stick. MAP-21 now gives us a stick: the legal framework to intervene when a state or transit operator is not in compliance with federal safety regulations, and, if necessary, take action to enforce the law. We could, in a worst-case scenario, deny federal funds for a transit agency that is not in compliance with its safety plan. We hope we don’t have to go that route, because generally when a transit agency has a safety deficiency, the challenge is finding additional money to address the problem. A better approach—and one that we hope we will be able to take most often—is that, in addition to the conversations we regularly have with transit agencies about the federal grants they receive, we will discuss their safety challenges, as well.
What are the next steps in the process, and how soon before public transit users start seeing the impact of this law?

We are somewhat limited for the first six months of this fiscal year in terms of staffing up the FTA’s new office to the level we need to get the job done right. We are now waiting to see if the appropriation that comes in March 2013 will give us adequate funds to fully implement the law.

But among the first changes we hope transit riders will see is a cultural transformation that FTA is trying to bring about in transit agencies. We want to infuse transit agencies with a very strong safety culture that involves everyone from the CEO to the passenger to the front-line worker, all using their eyes and ears to identify any safety concerns, and then report those concerns so that they can be analyzed and quickly acted upon.