By Bruce DePuyt
Advocates for the Washington, D.C., region’s beleaguered transit system told a Maryland Senate panel Wednesday the opportunity to fix a decades-old funding flaw appears to be at hand, but they cautioned the moment may not last.
WMATA General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld told the Budget and Taxation Committee that legislation now under consideration in Annapolis, Richmond and the District would give his agency a dedicated funding source for the first time in its history, allowing the agency to make needed investments in maintenance and new equipment.
“It’s the basics,” he told the panel. “It’s rail cars. It’s track maintenance. It’s power systems. It’s platforms. It’s escalators. It’s elevators. It’s buses. It’s the para-transit facilities. It’s the garages. All the basic things that you need to do to keep the system operating at top performance.”
The only transit system of its size without a dedicated source of capital funds, Metro has been beset by troubles in recent years. Two years ago the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority launched a maintenance catch-up program that resulted in lines being closed for weeks at a time, at great inconvenience to commuters and other users.
Metro announced this week that it will conduct extensive repairs this summer, closing two stations and impacting riders on every line.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) would dedicate $125 million a year from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to Metro. The money would be matched by Virginia and the District. Along with hoped-for federal funds, the resulting $500 million “would mean we could borrow $15 billion over the next 10 years,” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said in an interview.
Evans, chairman of the D.C. Council’s Finance and Revenue Committee, is sponsor of a measure to dedicate a portion of the city’s existing sales tax to transit. A measure being debated in Richmond would provide Virginia’s share using different sources.
“It’s the most critical thing since the founding of Metro,” Evans told Maryland Matters, a sentiment echoed by Feldman, who told his colleagues, “We’re at a moment in which the three jurisdictions are aligning for the first time in 50 years.”
The Virginia General Assembly session ends March 10, and Feldman and Wiedefeld both urged lawmakers to give “some signal” that they’re on board.
“I think we can help drive the discussion in Richmond right now,” Feldman said.
Traditionally, proposals to fund mass transit systems have exposed suburban-rural fault lines in the legislature. To dispel the notion that Metro only benefits residents of Montgomery and Prince George’s, Feldman told the committee that more than 32,000 residents from outside those counties ride Metro each day, about the same number that ride all three MARC lines combined.
“Ten percent of the tax base of our entire state is directly attributable to business activity along our Metro routes,” he said, adding that a third of the D.C. region’s economic activity and 38 percent of the area’s jobs are within a half mile of Maryland’s 27 Metro stations.
If the federal government does not provide additional funds for Metro maintenance, the three jurisdictions would need to make up the difference, the panel was told. Maryland’s share would rise to $167 million a year, as determined by ridership, stations and track-miles formulas. (D.C.’s share would grow to $178 million a year, Virginia’s to $155 million.)
Feldman praised Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) for helping create a sense that this could be the year that Metro gets an infusion of capital funds. “The governor did get out of the box and put this on the table,” he said.
State Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., the vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and a candidate for governor, disagreed. He said Hogan’s proposal to provide four years of funds “looks good but doesn’t provide any sort of real solution.”
Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer praised Feldman for putting “partisanship and politics aside;” as for Madaleno, Mayer said “his little game is getting pretty worn out by this point.”
State Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) expressed support for the funding proposal, noting that the city’s subway system announced an emergency one-month shutdown last week for track repair.
Both systems are “important,” he said. “My position here is that this is critical for the Washington region.”
Environmentalists, union leaders and transit advocates also urged lawmakers to approve the measure.
One potential source of friction down the road: a push by Republicans in the Virginia legislature to require that some Metro operations be privatized, along with other reforms that would be hard to swallow in D.C. and Maryland, more union-friendly jurisdictions.
“WMATA is crumbling,” Jeff Rosenberg, lobbyist for the Amalgamated Transit Union, told the panel. “Ridership has plummeted over the last couple of years. The public has lost faith in the system. A clean funding bill is really the only way to go.”