A week ago the Obama administration proposed to take over safety regulation over commuter rail, subway, and light rail systems nationwide. Federal law currently blocks such regulation, but proponents claim safety oversight is lax in most jurisdictions. It later came out that this authority would eventually expand to buses.
Although it’s good that federal money would be attached, I see this as a dangerous path.* Safety regulation has obvious benefits, but it can also impose unreasonable restrictions on operations, especially when written at a national level and ignorant of local conditions. (Consider the history of federal regulation of intercity rail, or the Bush FTA’s heinous decision to effectively kill special bus service to sporting events.) Even well-intentioned rules can end up putting more people in cars and therefore get more people killed.
Moreover, as with any regulatory power, in the wrong hands it can actively be used to destroy that which it regulates. Most Americans are entirely car-dependent, and there are going to be times over the coming decades where a transit-hostile administration is in power. Let’s not give them a very effective tool to strangle rail transit.
* To be clear, my colleagues largely disagree with me on this issue.