Few issues expose traditional fault lines in Maryland politics — rural vs. suburban, Republican vs. Democrat — like funding for mass transit. For many legislators outside the state’s two population centers, every dollar spent on subway and bus service is a dollar that can’t be spent on improving roads.
But late last week, in action that may help define the 2018 legislative session, the state Senate voted 46-0 to provide the Washington area’s beleaguered Metro system with $167 million a year in new funding for equipment and maintenance.
“I was shocked at that,” said David Harrington, a former Democratic state legislator from Prince George’s who now runs the county’s chamber of commerce. “It was good to see.”
Call it the Amazon Effect.
The e-commerce giant is the middle of a search for what they’re calling “HQ2” — a second headquarters site that will bring an estimated 50,000 high-paying tech jobs to the chosen community. More than 200 cities and counties submitted bids. Montgomery County, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia made the “top 20” and remain — at least publicly — in the running.
“Amazon really changed the political dynamics of support for mass transit,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Even Republicans representing rural areas can see the benefit to the state of doing what can be done to lure what may be one of the biggest economic engines ever to hit the lucky area that ends up with Amazon’s [second] headquarters.”
The vote for the Maryland Metro/Transit Funding Act was 46-0 in the Maryland Senate late last week. Photo by Bruce DePuyt
“There was an interest in having Maryland not come up short,” Harrington said. “The stars were aligned correctly [and] we got to $167 [million].”
Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R), after initially supporting a Baltimore city site that didn’t make Amazon’s initial cut, is now working closely with Montgomery County leaders, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Hogan has proposed $5 billion in incentives for a site widely believed to be in the White Flint area of North Bethesda.
Last year, Virginia, the District and Maryland were asked by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld to pony up $500 million a year in new funding for rail cars, other equipment and maintenance, money that could be used to leverage $5.5 billion through borrowing over the next decade.
Under the agency’s cost-sharing formula, that meant $154 million a year from Virginia, $167 million from Maryland and $178 million from The District. The Virginia General Assembly approved its full target amount in early March, just before adjourning for the year. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature in Richmond.
Wiedefeld’s request benefitted from the emergence of Amazon’s search.
Hogan publicly supported Maryland providing its full share, and he was singled out for praise Friday by Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), chief sponsor of the transit funding bill.
“Quite frankly the governor deserves credit here as well,” he said. “This was a team effort.”
“I think [Hogan] wants to be a regional leader,” Harrington said, “and he stepped up to the plate.”
While the vote in the House of Delegates, 97-41, reflected traditional resistance to urban-area transit requests, Hogan was able to get Republicans in the Senate to vote green.
“This is much-needed,” said Sen. Andrew A. Serafini (R-Washington County) just before the vote. “A lot of our constituents use Metro. We need it. It’s very important to us economically, for our citizens.”
Metro’s safety and reliability problems have caused a falloff in ridership, prompting discussion of a “death spiral,” where riders flee, reducing revenue, leaving less money to improve service, resulting in even more commuters seeking alternatives.
“This is a vote that has been elusive in the D.C. region for literally more than 40 years,” Feldman said. “[Metro] is the only system of its kind in the nation that does not have a dedicated funding stream [and] we’re about to do that now, and that has been a huge, huge problem.”
Wary of giving a blank check to an agency that has had management and worker failures, Virginia officials included language requiring WMATA to improve performance and oversight, language Maryland lawmakers copied.
“The biggest problem with WMATA is accountability,” Serafini said. “Are they taking care of things? Are they doing things right? This thing has teeth in it. It’s really good.”
Amazon is expected to announce its new headquarters site later this year.
Whether any of the three D.C.-area sites get the call, the region has already benefitted from the competition, analysts say.
“The prospect of Amazon locating here seems to have convinced many elected officials to hope for the best with Metro and put more money on the table,” Farnsworth said.