ANNAPOLIS – Surprise federal action has spurred a flurry of legislative action related to the Metrorail Safety Commission (MSC).
On Feb. 10, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and new Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao sent a letter to Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., leaders stating that federal funds were being withheld until the jurisdictions all passed legislation to create the MSC. Under Anthony Foxx, transportation secretary in the Obama Administration, officials had indicated the threat to withhold funding was a hollow one, so the states were taken by surprise by Chao’s letter.
“When we got past the Feb. 9 deadline, which we thought was a soft deadline, we were very surprised to find the government came down like a hammer,” said Maryland state Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery County). “Once we got the letter, I thought we had to get into a more expedited mode.”
So, Feldman proposed an amendment from the floor of the Senate to SB265, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission Membership Act. The bill was initially intended to be a companion bill to a separate measure creating the commission, but Feldman’s amendment combined the two pieces of legislation on the Senate side and gave it emergency status, meaning it would take effect immediately upon the governor signing it.
Feldman said $4.8 million is being withheld by the federal government, and the state needed to “show the feds we did what we needed to do.”
In the U.S. Congress, Maryland’s two senators and several representatives, led by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5), introduced a joint resolution with their Virginia counterparts that would give federal approval to the MSC. Initially, the plan had been for Congress to act after all three jurisdictions had passed their legislation, but the FTA’s decision spurred quicker action.
“Friday’s decision by the Federal Transit Administration to withhold transit funds from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia stresses the immediate need to quickly enact this legislation. This resolution highlights the willingness and readiness of Congress to work together to establish the Safety Commission,” Hoyer said in a statement.
The legislators hope that quick action will mean Maryland doesn’t feel real ill effects from the withholding of funds. The federal fiscal year begins in October, while Maryland’s starts July 1, and the disparity should work in the state’s favor once the MSC is passed.
“The good news is that because of the way our fiscal year works, there may not be any immediate impact so long as we get the money within the coming months,” Feldman said. “However, we don’t want to play with any fire here. We want to move expeditiously.”
The bill, as amended, passed the third reading in the Senate 45-0 on Feb. 17 and is now headed for the House, which has already been working on both the MSC creation and MSC membership bills in committee. The two proposals remain separated there.
In the midst of this, on Feb. 16, the House Environment and Transportation Committee heard testimony about the House version of the membership act, sponsored by Del. Erek Barron (D-24) and Marc Korman (D-Montgomery County). The membership act specifies that the Senate confirm MSC appointees and that one of the two Maryland voting members reside in Prince George’s or Montgomery County, to be succeeded by someone from the other county.
Several delegates at that hearing expressed concern that the two bills had been combined.
“My view is that we ought to have one bill that has only to do with the federal requirement,” Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery County), committee chair, said during the hearing. “I think it would’ve been more proper to wait for the Hogan administration and the House of Delegates to take an action that we know is in keeping with what the federal government wants.”
But Del. Barron said he did not think combining the two bills would affect the Maryland bill’s conformity with the bills in Virginia and D.C.
“How the different jurisdictions determine membership is completely up to them,” he said. “We have good counsel that will advise us if we’re doing something wrong.”
Barron said the committee will continue to work on the House and the Senate bills to come up with the most advantageous solution.
“Everyone understands that this has to be done. How we get from Point A to Point B doesn’t matter to me,” Barron said.
“We will figure out which one. That’s not important. The key is we need to get one bill to the governor’s desk so we can get the federal government off our backs,” he said.
Creating the MSC remains a priority for both state and federal leaders, and they say they are committed to making it a reality.
“I am pleased that the Maryland State General Assembly is moving quickly to enact the Metrorail Safety Commission,” Hoyer said. “I am confident once Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia all pass legislation to establish the Safety Commission, Congress will act without delay.”
Barron said, “Every session there are very few must-pass bills. This year, this is one of them.”
And Feldman spoke to the importance of the commission for Metro riders around the region.
“The Metrorail system is an important component of our regional economy, how people get to jobs, and we need a reliable and safe system. The commission is a step in the right direction,” he said. “This commission is really important and I’m glad we’re moving forward.”