U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are asking for additional funding for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) saying that it is "woefully underfunded" and unable to fully evaluate existing and future rail safety programs across the nation's freight and passenger railroads.
The senators say that the agency lacks the resources to inspect 99 percent of the nation’s rails and to sufficiently prepare for the oversight of new safety measures. Schumer and Blumenthal say they will fight for additional funds in the upcoming Fiscal Year 2014 appropriations bill so the agency can hire an additional 45 inspectors, after the budget sequester cut approximately $9 million from the FRA’s budget in the 2013 fiscal year.
These inspectors will be dedicated to inspecting rail and evaluating the safety protocols and infrastructure of railroads around the country. Schumer and Blumenthal requested that Congress meet the Obama Administration’s full 2014 request of $185 million for safety and operations, an increase of approximately $15 million more than this year’s sequestered budget. The senators noted that FRA does not seek to inspect 100 percent of the nation’s rails each year, a task that is shared by states and the railroads themselves, but additional funding would allow them to dramatically increase the percentage and spot safety checks.
According to a 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), FRA is only able to inspect about one percent of the nation’s tracks each year with the resources they are allocated. The agency’s rail-safety oversight framework relies on inspections to ensure railroads comply with federal safety regulations. FRA inspects railroad infrastructure and operations, identifies safety defects, and may cite railroads for violations. The GAO has found that the FRA faces three major rail safety challenges. One, implementation of its oversight of mandated safety measures and new railroad risk reduction plans; two, adjusting to changing rail traffic flows and, three, ensuring it has enough inspectors for its current and future oversight workload. FRA expects 30 percent of its field safety staff will be eligible to retire in the next five years.
Schumer and Blumenthal said that additional funding would be possible to secure due to the recent bipartisan budget deal. The resolution, which sets top-line spending levels through 2015, passed the House of Representatives last week and is set to pass the Senate this coming week. The House and Senate appropriations committees will now seek to pass legislation laying out individual program funding levels and priorities. Schumer wrote to leaders of the Senate Appropriations committee requesting additional funding for the FRA by meeting the administration’s budget request for 2014.
Schumer and Blumenthal said that without the proper resources, inspections and certifications of new safety technologies could be unacceptably delayed. In a 2013 GAO report, the agency found that new technologies, such as automated control systems, are another challenge that FRA will have to incorporate into its rail safety oversight framework.