Ongoing Mystery: Will State Make Metro Funds Available?

Among the budget cuts made by the Board of Public Works on Wednesday: $35 million from the Washington, D.C., Metro system. WTOP photo

If Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and his transportation secretary, Pete K. Rahn, were looking to create a sense of drama and uncertainty surrounding the state’s commitment to fund the Washington, D.C., area’s transit system, they have succeeded.

It’s been more than five weeks since Rahn announced that Maryland would not be making the $55.6 million payment to Metro that was due that day. The July 1 announcement caught both agency and local elected officials by surprise — and many are still wondering whether the payment will be made.

“I’m not getting any answers. I get none,” said state Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), the chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

“We hear crickets. Even people that I know on the inside that would normally tell me something don’t have a clue.”

Del. Jared Solomon (D-Montgomery), a member of the House Appropriations Committee who sits on the legislature’s transit caucus, said, “This seems a little bit crazy to me, the amount of money that the administration is choosing not to spend.”

A former member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, Malcolm Augustine, now serves in the state Senate. But even he is in the dark.

“I have no insight, unfortunately,” Augustine (D-Prince George’s County) said.

In announcing the state’s decision to withhold the nearly $56 million in funds for new rail cars and buses, Rahn identified a host of concerns, including insufficient audit information related to past spending and the lapsing of the previous capital funding agreement between Maryland and the agency.

He also complained that Metro had miscalculated the state’s share of previous expenses and that Maryland had been overcharged as a result.

Rahn now serves on the WMATA board and he met with the agency’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, in July.

Wiedefeld later wrote Rahn to update him on his efforts to improve Metro’s accounting procedures. He also expressed a willingness to enter into a new capital funding agreement and urge that the funds due on July 1 be released.

As of Tuesday evening, WMATA had yet to receive its funds.

Given the abrupt manner in which the state announced its decision, legislators and transit advocates concede they don’t know what the state’s game plan is. Are the funds going to be released eventually — or will the state reprogram them for some other use?

In a brief interview, Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman Erin Henson would only say, “Those are all really good questions and we’re not there yet.”

She would not elaborate.

The governor’s communications director, Michael Ricci, said in a statement that Hogan “was the first leader to propose a real solution to secure Metro’s financial future, and Maryland continues to provide more funding than any other jurisdiction for Metro.”

“All we ask in return is some fairly straightforward transparency and accountability, starting with an audit,” he said.

King, one of the most influential legislators in Maryland, is no fan of the administration’s actions.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “I don’t get why he’s holding the money. I just think it makes our state look bad.”

Asked whether Metro’s other funding partners, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia, would be likely to withhold funds they’ve committed, in response to Maryland’s action, King said, “I think that’s a scenario.”

Gary V. Hodge, a former elected official in Southern Maryland and cofounder of the Maryland Transit Opportunities Coalition, said “Rahn’s attack on the $56 million is part of his general skepticism and cynicism about transit, but it also [has to do with the] management of resources.”

“There are a lot of mouths to feed that Rahn is obligated to feed,” said Hodge, referring to the state’s many transportation needs. “He’s always looking for more targets of opportunity to squeeze for more accountability, shaving off obligations and reorienting funding to highway priorities.”

Hodge thinks Metro “will eventually get the $56 million.”

So does a Maryland official with knowledge of the situation who would speak candidly only on condition of anonymity.

“I think the letter from Pete Rahn was intended to get the attention of the general manager and the staff, and I think it succeeded,” the official said.

“I’m hopeful that the two sides are going to figure out some way to get this resolved by the end of September, before another payment is due,” the official added.

“If it goes beyond [late September],” the source said, “then I think we’ve got real problems, because then WMATA’s bond ratings start to get put under some cloud by the [Wall Street] rating agencies. And it’s ability to keep funding projects may get a little more difficult because the line of credit may be close to getting exhausted by then.”

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