March 1, 2010
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Oberstar Introduces Transit Safety Bill
At the request of DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, on Feb. 22 Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-MN), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee, introduced H.R. 4643, the “Public Transportation Safety Program Act of 2010,” which would give the federal government jurisdiction over transit-rail safety.
Co-sponsored by Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR)—who chairs the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of T&I—and Donna Edwards (D-MD), H.R. 4643 would establish a national public transportation safety program. Currently, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) oversees a State Safety Oversight (SSO) program that places safety oversight and enforcement responsibility for rail transit systems on states, rather than the federal government. The problems connected to oversight exist because most of these SSO programs have extremely small staffs. Further, the legal authorities of the various state oversight agencies are both limited and widely varied.
“I commend the Obama administration for acknowledging the shortfalls of the current state-based safety system and I believe that [DOT’s] proposal represents much-needed improvements,” Oberstar said. “It will assure that each state has an adequate number of fully trained staff, that it has sufficient authority granted by the state legislature and governor, that it can compel compliance by the transit agencies, and that the state oversight entity has financial independence from the transit systems it oversees. I think those are reasonable propositions. Safety is our number one responsibility in transportation.”
Rail transit—currently one of the safest modes of passenger travel—has in the last two years experienced record-setting ridership.
The growth in transit ridership is almost triple the growth rate of the population, and substantially more than the growth rate for vehicle miles traveled on our nation’s highways. This increased use highlights the importance of transit safety while also spotlighting an issue that is inextricably linked to safety—the state of good repair of public transit systems.
Because of a variety of factors, including a lack of available finances, many transit systems use railcars, tracks, and electrical equipment long after their projected “useful” lifespan. According to FTA, more than one-third of the assets at many transit systems in the country need to be improved to meet a state of good repair standard.
In addition, according to DOT’s “2008 Status of the Nation’s Highways, Bridges, and Transit: Conditions and Performance,” an average of $21.1 billion in annual capital investment is needed to bring all transit assets to a good condition by 2026. This level of investment represents an annual increase of $8.3 billion—an increase of 64.8 percent—above current capital investment levels.
In addition to addressing this maintenance backlog, Oberstar added that he looks forward to working with DOT during consideration of the comprehensive, long-term surface transportation authorization bill.
Once the bill is voted out of committee, the full House will vote on it, and then the Senate will consider its version.