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U.S. transportation safety investigators need more funding for staff and equipment to keep up with new technology such as automated vehicles and drones, an independent agency’s top official told lawmakers.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s workforce has been “stagnant for two decades,” even as the agency faces increasingly complex investigations, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the board, told a House panel on Wednesday. Homendy said the agency’s workload has increased and it needs resources to better train employees and procure equipment.
“Quite simply, we need more people,” Homendy said at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on the agency’s reauthorization. “It’s not just about headcount; the skills needed for future workforce are also important.”
NTSB is seeking more money for its current authorization, which expires at the end of this fiscal year after last being renewed in 2018. The agency has led investigations of Boeing Co. aviation incidents and Tesla Inc. car crashes.
The agency is seeking $129.3 million for fiscal 2023, up from $121.4 million in the current fiscal year; and it wants that number to increase annually up to $175 million by 2027, according to the legislative proposal the NTSB submitted to lawmakers, obtained by Bloomberg Government. The NTSB proposal also calls for expanded authority to impose civil penalties for railroad incidents, and for reports to Congress on investigations that last longer than two years.
NTSB staff identified the need for another 192 positions over the next five years, Homendy said, but the proposal to lawmakers doesn’t reflect that staffing level, which would have brought the agency’s total annual budget to $250 million.
“This is modest; it’s what we thought would be reasonable that we can move forward with,” Homendy said.
NTSB staffing has remained the same, even as the size of the Transportation Department has increased by more than 2,000 employees, Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said. With its case load increasing and many NTSB employees near retirement, the agency needs to attract new workers and improve the timeliness of its investigation reports, he said.
“The longer it takes for NTSB to analyze and issue reports and recommendations, the longer it takes other agencies or Congress to implement them,” DeFazio said. “These delays have potential detrimental impact on safety.”
Committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said that a more efficient NTSB should yield timelier reports and better equip the transportation sector with the information it needs to improve safety.
“The NTSB’s backlog of accident reports and investigations is unacceptable,” Graves said. “While I am pleased that the agency is taking action to address the backlog, we need to ensure that this kind of issue does not occur again.” The agency’s current workload includes more than 1,600 active investigations, Homendy said in her written testimony.
Investigating a highway crash takes an average of 18 months, and aviation incidents take an average of 19 months, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) said at the hearing, citing NTSB data. She asked how the reauthorization proposal could make that more efficient.
Homendy said the agency is asking for a “modest increase in resources and personnel, which would help us improve the timeliness of our accident investigations.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org