House votes to authorize DC Metro safety commission
© Greg Nash

The House passed a measure on Monday to pave the way for establishing a safety commission for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority system.

The resolution, adopted 399-5, grants approval for the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland to enter into an interstate compact to create a Washington Metrorail Safety Commission.

According to the resolution, the new commission would act as the “state safety oversight authority” for the Metro system. It would have the power to restrict or suspend service on any part of the rail system, investigate incidents and adopt a safety oversight program standard.

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The commission’s board would be required to have backgrounds in “transit safety, transportation, relevant engineering disciplines, or public finance” and could not simultaneously hold public office or be employed by the Metro system.

“Safety must continue to be Metro’s number one priority,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the author of the resolution, said during House floor debate.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in 2015 took over safety oversight responsibilities for the D.C. Metro system, which was meant as a short-term plan until a new oversight agency could be established.

The FTA has been withholding federal grant money for Metro since early this year after regional leaders missed a deadline to establish a new safety commission. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has said the funds will be restored once a safety commission is in place.

The Metro system began imposing fare hikes and cut back service late last month, to the chagrin of customers who had to deal with extensive track repairs over the past year.

Metro leadership decided in 2016 to cram about three years’ worth of work into one as a response to a string of track problems and smoke incidents. One rider died in 2015 after an electrical malfunction filled the L’Enfant Plaza station with smoke, leaving a train full of passengers stranded in a tunnel.

The entire Metro system was abruptly shut down for an entire workday last year so employees could check electric cables.

Metro’s management announced the fare hikes and new schedule in an attempt to help close its budget gap and provide more time for maintenance.

Trains now stop running at 11:30 p.m. on weekdays instead of what had been midnight. And on Fridays and Saturdays, stations close at 1 a.m. instead of 3 a.m. Stations close at 11 p.m. on Sundays.

At the same time, Metro customers pay 10 cents to 25 cents more per ride on the train and bus.