WASHINGTON – The House approved legislation Monday giving the go-ahead for a new safety watchdog for the passenger rail system serving commuters and visitors in and around the nation's capital.
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After a series of critical lapses, the Obama administration directed the Federal Transit Administration in late 2015 to oversee safety for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Insufficient investment in maintenance and delayed repairs led to a deterioration of the transit system. In January 2015, an Alexandria, Virginia, woman died and more than 80 other people were taken to the hospital after they were trapped in a smoke-filled train stopped near one of the system's underground stations.
But the federal government's move to assume safety oversight was designed as a temporary measure.
To provide a longer-term solution, the Federal Transit Administration required that Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia establish an effective safety monitor.
Lawmakers in those jurisdictions have already approved legislation to create the new safety commission. Maryland and Virginia lawmakers acted after federal officials announced they would withhold millions of dollars in transportation funding until the states acted to create the new commission. About $9 million has been withheld.
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The passage of the resolution giving Congress's consent — the vote was 399-5 — is the final piece in creating the commission. However, the federal transit agency will continue to oversee safety until it determines that the new entity is capable of meeting its responsibilities.
Metrorail provides transit service for more than 600,000 customers a day and is the second busiest transit system in the nation, serving 91 stations in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Lawmakers from both parties spoke in favor of the legislation, which was sponsored by Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. The Senate gave its approval in May.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said the bill responds to the safety needs of the system. At the same time, he said, it's essential to invest in the transit service to ensure greater reliability and efficiency.
"If we didn't have the Metro system, what is already one of the most traffic-plagued and congested regions in the country would be absolutely paralyzed," Raskin said.