Feds withhold millions in transportation funds until Metro safety commission created

Federal officials said Friday that they will withhold millions of dollars in transportation funding from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia until they create a new commission to oversee safety on the Metro.

The move by the Federal Transit Administration, which took over direct safety oversight of the Metro in October 2015, comes after the states and the district missed a deadline to establish the State Safety Oversight Program.

Federal officials said they will withhold about $8.9 million in funds from the city and two states through April. That could grow to roughly $15 million through the end of fiscal year 2017 if the commission isn't created by then, officials said.

Legislation to set up the oversight body has passed the D.C. Council, but is awaiting final approval in the Virginia and Maryland General Assemblies. The funds won't be released until the legislation is signed by all three jurisdictions, the commission meets certain requirements and is certified by the FTA, they added.

"By law, states have the primary responsibility for overseeing the safe operation of their rail transit systems, not only for riders but for transit operators and workers," FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes said in a statement.

The FTA stepped into to provide Metro safety oversight after a deadly electrical malfunction and other accidents shook confidence in the nation's second-busiest transit network. In January 2015, one passenger was killed and more than 80 others were sickened after a malfunction caused a train to fill with smoke inside a downtown Washington tunnel.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne estimated that it could take up to a year before the oversight body is certified, but stressed that the states are moving forward "as quickly as possible."

Virginia stands to lose out on about $6.2 million for the year, Layne said. He said state officials will work with localities to prevent reductions in service by borrowing money from other programs or taking out loans to cover the cost.

"While we're not happy with what the federal authorities have done, we understand that's one of the prerogatives they have, so we have got to deal with it," Layne said.

About $5.2 million will be withheld from the Metro, the Maryland Transit Administration and Potomac Rappahannock Transportation Commission through April, the FTA said.

"We will work closely with the funding jurisdictions to determine how best to make up the difference to avoid reducing safety or reliability projects," Metro Spokesman Dan Stessel said in an email.

Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said the state is on track to pass its legislation to create the program. If the body is set up by Sept. 30, there will be no impact on Maryland's transportation budget, Henson said.

Mayor Muriel Bowser signed D.C.'s legislation on Friday.

"We did our part first and encourage our partners to follow our lead," Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Bowser, said in a statement.

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Associated Press reporter Brian Witte contributed to this report from Annapolis, Maryland.

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Follow Alanna Durkin Richer at http://twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer.

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