Transpo bill gridlock staves off federal transit regulation

There are two general attitudes among urbanists towards the transportation omnibus bill that Congress has been struggling to pass in recent years (?). Some, like Streetsblogs and a number of political advocacy groups, hope for swift passage because of the bill’s transit spending. Others, like Cap’n Transit, balk at all the highway spending, and cheer on the gridlock.

And here’s one other reason to be on Cap’n Transit’s side: no new bill means no federal regulation of rapid transit.

Right now, the federal government only has the power to regulate safety on rail lines that feed into the national mainline network, and could therefore, at least in theory, run into a freight train. This includes all intercity trains (Amtrak and possibly All Aboard Florida), commuter trains (Metro-North, Caltrain, etc.), and the occasional light rail line using an older right-of-way that’s still connected to the national network (e.g., New Jersey’s River Line). Self-contained “rapid transit” networks – subways, elevated trains, and new light rail and streetcar lines – are beyond the feds’ reach.

To many legislators, the Fort Totten crash on DC’s Red Line in 2009, operated by WMATA, was evidence that federal regulation is needed. (WMATA’s MetroRail is actually one of the most technologically advanced systems in America – or at least it was, until after the crash when they turned the ATO off, which drives the train while the operator opens and closes the doors.) There was a big outcry about it right after the crash and a few times since then, and the debate seems to be coming up again.

But despite the liberal leanings of most transit enthusiasts, you’d be hard pressed to find one who thinks that federal regulation will do WMATA – an admittedly heinous agency that needs to be reined in – any good. The main reason to be suspicious is the incredibly poor job that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has done in overseeing mainline rail safety, which has been in its regulatory portfolio for decades.

In the words of Eric McCaughrin, the FRA is “regulating passenger rail out of existence” with its insistence that trains be bulked up to survive crashes. Instead, he suggests that instead safety regulators should focus on preventing crashes with technology like they do in Europe and Asia – for example by installing automatic train protection and operation systems, which, at least outside of DC, have very good safety records. The FRA’s idea of safety, he contends, drives up costs, power consumption, and track wear-and-tear, while driving down reliability and performance (namely, acceleration and deceleration).

The FRA (or whatever body would be charged with the new regulatory tasks) may not make exactly the same mistakes with subways as they did with mainline trains, but many are fearful that they’ll screw up in some other way, such as not keeping up with future technological advances.

Democrats are likely to follow the president’s lead on the matter, who proposed expanding federal oversight to rapid transit and light rail back in 2009. Most Republicans are against giving more regulatory authority on this matter to the feds, though their opposition seems to be based in ideology. I would love to be proven wrong, but I doubt any of them are actually aware of the FRA’s regulatory misdeeds.

In any case, the issue is tied up with the larger highway bill which is of course mired in its own controversies. So luckily for those leery of federal oversight in this matter, Politico says we probably won’t see the feds regulating rapid transit this year:

But with House and Senate negotiators still far apart on the bill, many are predicting another extension of current policy. That would mean no changes in the transit safety structure.

I do have to take issue with Politico’s headline, though: “Transit safety still lags.” It’s not safety that lags – in fact, rapid transit has an impecable safety record, even taking into account the deaths at the hands of the the fools at WMATA. Rather, it’s federal regulation over safety that’s lagging. The Democrats argue that the two are the same thing, but most Republicans and transit advocates clearly don’t see it that way.