Lori Aratani and Paul Duggan of the Washington Post report on the controversy about which agency should oversee safety of the Washington DC subway system (“Metrorail”).
Aratani and Duggan begin by committing a pair of analytic errors:
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday rejected a proposal by the nation’s top safety board that would have beefed up federal oversight of Metrorail, subjecting the failure-prone subway system to stricter safety regulations and tougher sanctions for violations.
In an “urgent” recommendation last week, Christopher A. Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the Federal Transit Administration’s system for monitoring subway safety nationwide has been ineffective in Metro’s case. Hart urged Foxx to shift oversight of Metro from the FTA to the Federal Railroad Administration, a bigger agency with greater enforcement authority.
The first error is assuming that recommendations made by the National Traffic Safety Board are analytically correct and normatively preferred. They make this presumption when they say, apparently without uncertainty, that adopting NTSB’s recommendations would “beef up” federal oversight. While it might be true that adopting the NTSB’s safety recommendation would improve safety, this result isn’t obvious, and whether it would improve safety net of cost is even less so.
Te second error is assuming that one agency (the Federal Railroad Administration) would provide unambiguously superior safety oversight than the current one (the Federal Transit Administration’s Tri-State Oversight Committee). While it may be true that certain aspects of Metrorail’s unique, three-jurisdiction composition of Metrorail’s state safety oversight agency reduce effectiveness, it is not obvious that the FRA would do a better job. Metrorail is a very different rail transportation system that the freight and commuter railroads that FRA now oversees. Moreover, in recent years there have been a number of high-profile railroad accidents that FRA oversight did not prevent.
Benefit-cost analysis can sort out which of the many available options is likely to achieve the greatest improvement in safety net of costs expended. This tool is not one that NTSB uses, however. NTSB’s statutory authority consists of investigating transportation-related accidents and issuing reports (49 USC 1131). The Department of Transportation is required to respond to NTSB recommendations, but it is not required to adopt them (49 USC 1135). A common reason DOT declines to adopt an NTSB recommendation is that the expected costs would exceed the expected benefits. (See the text of the NTSB’s safety recommendation here; it does not even mention cost.)
The conflict between NTSB and DOT reflects a significant difference in statutory authority and bureaucratic culture. The NTSB generally does not consider costs and benefits when making safety recommendations, but DOT does. Thus, assuming that NTSB recommendations should be adopted is equivalent to concluding that the costs of adopting them should not matter.
Two other aspects of the Aratani and Duggan article are worth noting.
First, they quote a Member of Congress making a combination tactical BIMBO and Kinsley gaffe. (A BIMBO is the practice, identified and popularized by communications maven Merrie Spaeth, of unwittingly conveying a negative message when a positive one was easily within reach. A Kinsley gaffe is one that “accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on.”)
One of Metro’s biggest advocates and toughest critics, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), reacted with skepticism Thursday.
“There has to be more oversight” and “I am on record as supporting the NTSB’s recommendation,” Connolly said. “If [Foxx] has a better plan, then let’s hear it. But until and unless he tells us about it, I support the NTSB.”
Suggesting that Foxx’s decision might have been related to infighting between the transit and railroad administrations, Connolly said: “This is about public safety. This is not about bureaucratic turf.”
Second, Aratani and Duggan report the FRA’s ability to effectively oversee Metrorail is hampered by staff limitations:
[D]espite a larger staff (the FRA has more than 400 inspectors), a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office found that the railroad agency was able to inspect fewer than 1 percent of the nation’s railroads each year. Further exacerbating the problem: About 30 percent of the administration’s field safety staffers are expected to retire in five years.
The infrequency of FRA inspections does suggest that the agency would have trouble effectively overseeing Metrorail. It would either devote few resources to the task or it would inspect railroads even less often. (It is highly unlikely to receive additional appropriations.)
However, the reported retirement of 30% of FRA inspectors in the next five years means the agency has a lot of inspectors with many years of experience. As long as this experience is transferable to urban mass transit — an open question, to be sure — a large cadre of experienced inspectors is an asset, not a liability.