WASHINGTON - Federal investigators recommended Wednesday that the federal government assume oversight of Washington's troubled subway system, an unprecedented step for an urban mass transit network.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the Federal Railroad Commission should take over safety oversight of the Metro system following a fatal electrical malfunction in January and other accidents that have shaken confidence in the nation's second-busiest transit network.
Congress would have to pass a law reclassifying Metro as a commuter rail network for the commission to assume oversight. Like other urban subway systems, Metro is currently overseen by a state-level agency.
The NTSB has been investigating an electrical malfunction that caused a train to fill with smoke inside a downtown Washington tunnel. One passenger was killed and more than 80 others were sickened during the malfunction earlier this year, which was the first fatality on the Metro system since a catastrophic 2009 crash that killed nine people.
The NTSB said safety oversight of Metro had not improved since the 2009 crash.
"Without adequate oversight, accidents and incidents will continue to place the riders of the (Metro) system at risk," NTSB chairman Christopher Hart wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
A Transportation Department spokeswoman, Namrata Kolachalam, said the agency is exploring options to increase federal oversight of Metro and would consider the NTSB's recommendation.
A regional committee with representatives from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia currently handles safety oversight for Metro. The committee has no enforcement authority, which Hart said creates "an unacceptable gap in system safety."
The federal commission, meanwhile, can issue fines and order the suspension of rail operations until needed repairs are made. Members of the regional committee did not immediately return a message seeking comment on the NTSB's recommendation.
In August, Metro averted another disaster when a train with no passengers onboard derailed in a downtown tunnel as it was preparing to go into service. Metro found that the track defect that caused the derailment was discovered a month earlier but wasn't fixed. If Metro were under federal oversight, the track would have been taken out of service as soon as the problem was found, the NTSB said.
Even if Congress were to approve the change in oversight, it wouldn't solve Metro's systemic problems, which stem from a lack of adequate funding, said Rod Diridon, emeritus executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.
"All of our mass transportation systems have been starved of funding for the last several decades, since 1991," the last time a comprehensive transportation bill was approved by Congress, Diridon said. "How do you expect to have safe transportation systems and completely integrated transportation programs when we're paying so much less in terms of transportation support than the rest of the countries in the world? That's the issue -- it's not more oversight."
Members of Congress representing the Washington area said they supported the increased federal oversight.
"Metro is facing monumental challenges that it cannot face alone," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Northern Virginia Democrat. "The federal government must play a more active role in providing the necessary oversight and resources to address these challenges."
But Ward 2 councilmember Jack Evans, who is a Metro board member, said he does not think the federal government needs to get involved.
“Everybody stay out of it. We’ll take care of it here. The idea of pointing out to us that there are problems, that time has come and gone,” Evans said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.