New federal law regulates public transportation

The federal government is cracking down on Metro and other similar services across the nation.

With all the federal workers who ride Metro, you can imagine government officials are concerned with how it runs.

Lawmakers and transportation officials gathered Monday to discuss the new law, which mandates the establishment of federal safety standards for subway, bus, light rail and streetcar systems. Such transit has not been regulated by the federal government since 1964.

On the day they met, the morning rush came to a grinding halt after a train broke down at the Dupont Circle station. The closure came just two days after the computer that helps WMATA see where trains are crashed - twice.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, (D) Maryland, says she's heard an earful from her constituents.

"They are terrified...we have to do better," she added.

The bill was introduced by Mikulski in response to the June 2009 collision on Washington's Metro subway system that killed nine people and injured dozens more, and was included in a bipartisan transportation funding bill that Obama signed on July 6.

The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending the Federal Transit Administration include requirements for crash worthy rail cars, better evacuation and rescue routes, black box data recorders and limits on the number of hours train operators can be on the job.

The Transportation Department will have the power to withhold grant money to urban transit systems that don't make the safety improvements.

"This will mean lives saved," Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari said.

Officials said the bill would also help address problems on other transit systems, including a fatal 2009 crash on Boston's subway system and a recent fire along Chicago's elevated train line.

"We have rules and regs for buses in interstate commerce, for airplanes that get off the ground, but not for subway systems," Mikulski said. "This subway system moves 800,000 people a day and there's not one federal reg mandated to look out for it."

It's not yet known when the standards will be finalized, but federal officials will start informing state transit agencies in October 2013 about safety problems that need to be corrected. In addition to withholding funds, the department can direct that grant dollars be used for safety improvements.

The law also establishes a $22 million annual funding stream from the Federal Transit Administration to 27 state transit agencies so they can hire and train staff to improve safety.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said the government would not take the step to withhold grant funding lightly because transit agencies need money to make systems safer.

"That's not a tool we want to use, but it is a tool we will use to ensure that agencies are stepping up and making the appropriate transit safety investments," Rogoff said.

Although the law applies to all urban transit systems, officials said it was especially critical to the future of the Washington area's aging Metro system. In recent weeks, that system has had problems including doors opening while cars were moving, a derailment and a computer failure this past weekend that twice forced all the system's trains to be halted.

"This is the nation's transit system," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "It is critically important to the operations of government."

Mikulski also stressed the need to continue the dedicated federal funding for Metro. Congress agreed in 2008 to give Metro $1.5 billion over 10 years for infrastructure improvements, but the funding must be reauthorized every year. The fourth $150 million installment is included in the Senate spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.