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Legal Review: Will a New Commission Make the Metro Safe?

by John Yannone June 15, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

Legal Review PriceBenowitz

John Yannone is a partner at Price Benowitz and the head of the firm’s Personal Injury Practice Group. He practices in D.C. and Maryland.

Officials from Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. released a proposal to create a new, more powerful Metrorail Safety Commission to address the safety concerns that have troubled the Metro for years. The proposal comes amid increasing pressure for transparency and an overhaul of Metro safety in light of the slew of hazardous incidents like track fires, a shutdown of the Metro, and a recently reported case of sexual assault on a Red line train bound for Glenmont in D.C.

The new safety commission will have significantly more power to conduct investigations and enforce safety measures than the previous Tri-State Oversight Commission, which failed at Metro security and was taken over temporarily by the Federal Transit Administration. This was the first time that the FTA has intervened in a subway system in the history of the U.S., marking a low point for the 40-year-old Metro.

Mayor of D.C., Muriel Bowser, Governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, and Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe together announced the draft this week for the bill that they will present at the D.C. Council this summer, and at General Assembly sessions in Maryland and Virginia next year.

The proposal details the power that will be granted to the Metrorail Safety Commission, which includes creating and enacting safety rules, doling out citations and fines for violations, conducting investigations into lapses in safety, issuing subpoenas for safety investigations, and requiring transit agencies to invest in necessary safety equipment.

One provision in the bill that has raised eyebrows regards the Commission’s ability to decide when or if they make their investigations available to the public. With many people calling for more transparency, it is concerning that a new safety commission will be entitled to pull the curtains on investigations that relate to public safety. These reports will be shown to the mayor of D.C. and the governors of Virginia and Maryland, but in confidentiality. There has been no comment on this provision as of yet.

The Commission will be a six-person panel made up of two representatives from each region of the Metrorail, who will be compensated with $200 per day spent on duty with funds from each jurisdiction. The operating costs of the Commission will be independent of the Metro and will be divided equally between D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, with federal funding when applicable.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and federal officials applauded the proposal as a positive sign, while remaining firm on the definitive need for a Metro safety commission that can overhaul the transportation system. 

Any step to implement an entity that can monitor and secure the safety of metro riders is certainly welcome in D.C., but the secrecy provision is concerning when it is clear that greater transparency about safety is desired among Metro riders.

In April, a woman who fell asleep on a Red line train was sexually assaulted by a man who threatened her with a knife, before exiting at the Glenmont station. Authorities quickly apprehended him using surveillance video, but the incident was not reported until six weeks later. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld claims that because the suspect was quickly taken into custody and did not pose a threat to the public, they did not feel that it was necessary to inform Metro users of the incident.

However, many of the hundreds of thousands of daily Metro users disagree. They took to social media outlets like Twitter to express their dismay that this incident was concealed from them. Many comments raised the point that knowing about these happenings on the subway can allow them to make more informed choices and take necessary safety precautions.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how this Metrorail Safety Commission legislation progresses with the secrecy provision included. One has to wonder how the lack of transparency affects our safety in public transportation, and who exactly the secrecy provision aims to protect.

Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.

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