The Federal Transit Administration finances half the capital costs of transit agencies nationwide. But an unusual quirk in the law has prohibited it from issuing even basic safety standards to those same agencies. This fall, that finally changed.

The new transportation bill, which took effect this month, now gives FTA a larger role in shaping the safety standards designed to protect transit passengers and workers. The change was largely the result of the 2009 Washington, D.C., subway crash that killed nine people. Afterwards, it was revealed that the system’s safety oversight was handled by a little-known entity called the Tri-state Oversight Committee that had no authority, no dedicated employees or office space, and no website. That situation helped galvanize support for reform.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff tells Governing that historically, entities called State Safety Oversight agencies are tasked with the job of monitoring transit safety. But many SSO agencies – like the one in D.C. – are “two-bit” operations that, in some cases, have just a single employee and basically only exist on paper.

In some cases, the supposed watchdogs actually rely on the very transit agency they oversee for funding. Under the new law, states are compelled to create more robust SSO agencie. The feds have authorized about $22 million per year to pay for that effort, and they’ll fund up to 80 percent of the costs for each state. In August, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told governors to start looking for money to fund their contributions.

Rather than creating a detailed safety rulebook, FTA will still rely on SSO agencies to monitor transit systems' safety operations. But the feds now have authority to certify whether the SSO agencies are actually doing their jobs. “There may be one or two we'd consider certifying soon, but most of them have a very long way to go in terms of getting the people, the authority, and the expertise to do the job right,” Rogoff says.

The new law now says SSO agencies must be legally and financially independent from the transit systems they oversee, and they must have the authority and training to enforce state and federal laws. The SSO agencies will be required to approve, oversee and enforce transit agencies’ safety plans. Meanwhile, the feds will be able to monitor the SSOs, essentially acting as the overseer of the overseers.

A federal advisory committee is developing the details of how that whole process will work, with an emphasis on providing flexibility to ensure that the state watchdogs are looking out for the safety problems that their transit agencies are most susceptible to, whether it’s poor track conditions, inadequately trained operators, or faulty signaling systems. That committee actually began meeting in 2010 in anticipation that the feds would eventually get the authority they sought. Separately, FTA will also now require transit agencies to submit safety plans and asset management plans to ensure that they’re making smart safety investments, and the FTA now has the authority to inspect and audit transit systems.

Robert Healey, vice president government affairs at the American Public Transportation Association, says it’s too early to know exactly how the changes will impact states and transit systems since the committee is still finalizing the details. But he says APTA is urging the feds to go through the normal rulemaking process, including giving stakeholders the chance to submit comments before the rules are finalized. “I think we definitely want to work with them on how they do this,” Healey says.

Healey also noted that transit is generally a safe industry, and he noted that APTA has run safety audits of transit systems for years. “Every transit operator in the country wants to provide safe service to the customers they serve,” Healey says.