Ohio First State to Receive FTA State Safety Oversight Certification

Aug. 29, 2017
Ohio is the first state to receive FTA certification for its SSO Program and the other 29 need to ensure they meet the goal well in advance of the April 15, 2019 deadline.

Today the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced that Ohio is the first of 30 states to receive FTA certification for its State Safety Oversight (SSO) Program, a federal statutory requirement that requires states with rail transit systems to establish an FTA-certified SSO Program by April 15, 2019. For those states that don’t meet the deadline, they would be at risk of having federal funds to all public transportation agencies throughout the state being withheld until certification is achieved.

“Certification is an important achievement by the state of Ohio and demonstrates that the Ohio SSO Program has the authority, resources and expertise needed to oversee the rail transit systems in that state,” said FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes. “They certainly took the new statutory requirements that went into law in 2012 seriously.”

The FTA wants to continue partnering with the other 29 states to ensure that they also meet the goal, and are able to do so well in advance of the April 15, 2019 deadline. Welbes said thoughtful planning is needed now to reduce the risk of crisis management at the last moment. “The certification deadline is now less than two years away and time is becoming critical for all affected states, especially those that still need state legislative action.”

FTA is encouraging states to act quickly to enact any necessary legislation, statutes and regulations, particularly those states whose legislatures meet only part-time or biennially. Currently, seven states still require state legislative or executive action prior to FTA certification — Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico and Tennessee. By federal law, the April 15, 2019 deadline cannot be waived or extended.

All of the states need to meet the same federal statutory requirements to achieve FTA certification of their SSO Program, Welbes explained. “They need to scale their state safety oversight program commensurate with the size of the transit agencies. A state that has a small streetcar system only, will be different than a state that has oversight responsibilities for two heavy rail lines and a light rail line, but they all have a comparable requirement in terms of having the necessary investigation authority, be financially and legally independent from any of the transit agencies that they regulate, and they all need to make sure that their safety staff has the necessary certifications.”

Navigating the Requirements

FTA has provided $18 million a year to all affected states so they can provide the necessary staff and resources to develop and implement an SSO Program that is compliant with the federal requirements. FTA has also provided a toolkit with guidance for managing the SSO Program certification process and maintains frequent contact with the states and SSO agencies.

In addition to monthly calls between the FTA and stakeholders, FTA brings SSO agencies together twice a year to facilitate information sharing. Of the most recent meeting in Baltimore, Welbes said, “They really went in to detail about the different steps to make sure that they have the financial legal independence, that they have the best investigation authority and they talk about practices that the agencies use today.”

He said the FTA has stepped up its efforts in providing additional information to ensure there aren’t any "gray areas." Via the monthly phone calls with SSO agencies, they are able to clarify and answer all questions.

SSO Program Outlook

While Ohio is the first state to be certified, he said there are other states close to certification. “There’s clear progress,” Welbes stated.

The FTA has posted a status table online that shows each state’s progress toward certification. The table also shows the approximate amount of federal transit funds the FTA would be prohibited from obligating should the state fail to achieve certification by the deadline.

While this is a state safety oversight program directed solely at rail fixed guideway, it impacts all FTA grant recipients as federal funds throughout the state would be withheld if certification is not achieved by the deadline.

For those in one of the 30 states that aren’t rail operators themselves, Welbes said they are valuable partners in this process. “A transit agency CEO reaching out to a state DOT official can help make clear the importance of this objective.

“… In several states there’s still legislative action required and even though a transit CEO running a bus system might be a few hundred miles away from the rail system in the state, they can communicate with elected officials that represent them at the state legislature to make sure that everyone has a sense of the importance of meeting this goal.

“They’re very important and powerful people as partners in carrying out this program.”

Per the FTA: By federal law, the April 15, 2019 deadline cannot be waived or extended. FTA strongly recommends that states submit their SSO Program certification applications by April 15, 2018. States should not assume that applications submitted after September 30, 2018, will receive a decision on certification by the deadline. In some cases, the FTA may need to do onsite verifications, or states may need to correct and resubmit parts of their applications. All of these activities must be completed before the deadline.

The FTA SSO Program final rule took effect in April 2016, establishing a three-year period for states to obtain program certification.