Observations on FTA's State Safety Oversight Program and Potential Change in Its Oversight Role
GAO-10-314T: Published: Dec 10, 2009. Publicly Released: Dec 10, 2009.
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Rail transit generally has been one of the safest forms of public transportation. However, several recent notable accidents are cause for concern. For example, a July 2009 crash on the Washington Metro Red Line resulted in nine deaths. The federal government does not directly regulate the safety of rail transit. Through its State Safety Oversight program, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) requires states to designate an oversight agency to directly oversee the safety of rail transit systems. In 2006, GAO issued a report that made recommendations to improve the program. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is planning to propose legislation that, if passed, would result in a greater role for FTA in regulating and overseeing the safety of these systems. This statement (1) summarizes the findings of GAO's 2006 report and (2) provides GAO's preliminary observations on key elements DOT has told us it will include in its legislative proposal for revamping rail transit safety oversight. It is based primarily on GAO's 2006 report, an analysis of key elements of DOT's planned proposal through review of documents and interviews with DOT officials, and GAO's previous work on regulatory programs that oversee safety within other modes of transportation. GAO's 2006 report was based on a survey of the 27 state oversight agencies and transit agencies covered by FTA's program. GAO provided a draft of this testimony to DOT officials and incorporated their comments as appropriate.
GAO's 2006 report found that officials from the majority of the state oversight and transit agencies stated that the State Safety Oversight program enhances rail transit safety but that FTA faced several challenges in administering the program. For example, state oversight agencies received little or no funding from FTA and had limited funding for staff. In fact, some required that the transit agencies they oversaw reimburse them for services. Also, expertise, staffing levels, and enforcement powers varied widely from agency to agency. This resulted in a lack of uniformity in how oversight agencies carried out their duties. As of 2006, 13 oversight agencies were devoting the equivalent of less than one full-time employee to oversight functions. Also, 19 oversight agencies GAO contacted lacked certain enforcement authority, such as authority to issue fines, and those that did have such authority stated that they rarely, if ever, used it. DOT is planning to propose major changes in FTA's role that would shift the balance of federal and state responsibilities for oversight of rail transit safety. According to DOT officials, under this proposal, the agency would receive authority to establish and enforce minimum standards although states still could maintain an oversight program. States could become authorized to enforce these standards if FTA determines their program capable and financially independent of the transit system they oversee. FTA would provide financial assistance to approved programs. Such changes would have the potential to address challenges GAO cited in its 2006 report. For example, providing funding to participating state agencies could help them maintain an adequate number of trained staff, and providing FTA and participating states with enforcement authority could help better ensure that transit systems take corrective actions when problems are found. Congress may need to consider several issues in deciding whether or how to act on DOT's proposal. These include determining whatlevel of government has the best capacity to oversee transit safety, ensuring that FTA and state oversight agencies would have adequate and qualified staff to carry out the envisioned program, and understanding the potential budgetary implications of the program.