The Transportation Department will have the power to withhold grant money to urban transit systems that don't make safety improvements under a law signed this month by President Barack Obama.
Lawmakers and transportation officials gathered Monday to discuss the new law, which mandates the establishment of federal safety standards for subway, bus, light rail and streetcar systems. Such transit has not been regulated by the federal government since 1964.
"This will mean lives saved," Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari said.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in response to a June 2009 Metrorail collision that killed nine people and injured dozens more, and was included in a bipartisan transportation funding bill that Obama signed on July 6.
Officials said it also would help address problems on other transit systems, including a fatal 2009 crash on Boston's subway system and a recent fire along Chicago's elevated train line.
"We have rules and regs for buses in interstate commerce, for airplanes that get off the ground, but not for subway systems," Mikulski said. "This subway system moves 800,000 people a day and there's not one federal reg mandated to look out for it."
The National Transportation Safety Board is helping to draft the safety standards. Among other things, the NTSB will push for minimum crashworthiness standards for subway cars, a requirement that subways carry data recorders and limits on the number of hours that train conductors can work.
It's not yet known when the standards will be finalized, but federal officials will start informing state transit agencies in October 2013 about safety problems that need to be corrected. In addition to withholding funds, the department can direct that grant dollars be used for safety improvements.
The law also establishes a $22 million annual funding stream from the Federal Transit Administration to 27 state transit agencies so they can hire and train staff to improve safety.
FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said the government would not take the step to withhold grant funding lightly because transit agencies need money to make systems safer.
"That's not a tool we want to use, but it is a tool we will use to ensure that agencies are stepping up and making the appropriate transit safety investments," Rogoff said.
Although the law applies to all urban transit systems, officials said it was especially critical to the future of the Washington area's aging Metro system. In recent weeks, that system has had problems including doors opening while cars were moving, a derailment and a computer failure this past weekend that twice forced all the system's trains to be halted.
"This is the nation's transit system," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "It is critically important to the operations of government."
Mikulski also stressed the need to continue the dedicated federal funding for Metro. Congress agreed in 2008 to give Metro $1.5 billion over 10 years for infrastructure improvements, but the funding must be reauthorized every year. The fourth $150 million installment is included in the Senate spending bill for the upcoming fiscal year.