The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report saying the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) can strengthen its safety oversight by improving the guidance provided to states.
Specifically, GAO recommends that FTA (1) create a plan, with a timeline, for developing risk-based inspection guidance for state safety agencies, and (2) develop and communicate a method for how FTA will monitor whether state safety agencies’ enforcement practices are effective.
The Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and FTA carry out different approaches to rail safety oversight. FRA has a more centralized safety oversight program for railroads, while FTA’s program for oversight of rail transit safety largely relies on state safety agencies to monitor and enforce rail transit safety, as established by federal statute. Key characteristics of both programs include: (1) safety regulations, (2) inspections and other oversight activities and (3) enforcement mechanisms to ensure that safety deficiencies are addressed.
GAO says there are strengths and limitations to FRA’s and FTA’s approaches to their safety oversight missions, including how the two agencies develop safety regulations, conduct inspections, and carry out enforcement. According to stakeholders GAO spoke with and as reported by the National Transportation Safety Board, FRA’s rail safety oversight program strengths include its safety regulations, its risk-based inspection program and its enforcement authorities. GAO cited potential limitations in FRA’s oversight framework, such as difficulty evaluating the effectiveness of its enforcement mechanisms and notes that FTA has made some progress implementing changes to the rail transit safety program.
However, GAO reports that FTA has not provided all the necessary guidance and support to states’ safety agencies to ensure they develop appropriate and effective rail transit safety inspection programs. GAO notes that in particular, FTA has not provided states with guidance on how to develop and implement risk-based inspection programs. Though FTA has said that it will develop such guidance, it does not have a plan or timeline to do so. Without guidance from FTA on how to develop and carry out risk-based inspections, state safety agencies may not allocate their limited resources efficiently and important safety issues may go undetected. In addition, FTA has not developed a process or methodology to evaluate whether state safety agency enforcement authorities and practices are effective. Without clear evidence that state safety agencies’ enforcement is effective, states and FTA may not be able to compel rail transit operators to remedy safety deficiencies. As a result, deficiencies may remain for long periods, potentially contributing to safety incidents.
Federal law requires states with rail transit systems in the engineering or construction phase of development or in operation to obtain FTA certification of their State Safety Oversight (SSO) Programs by April 15, 2019. Those that do not meet the deadline, which can not be extended, will not be able to receive federal funds. To date, eight of the 30 states required to obtain SSO certification have done so.