Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

McDonnell transit power grab riles Democrats

For many years, Northern Virginia has complained that the Richmond state government neglected our region’s need for mass transit. Now, local elected officials are grumbling that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell wants to get too involved in commuter rail and bus services.

The turnabout has occurred because of unhappiness about a remarkable power grab mounted by McDonnell, a Republican, to increase Richmond’s clout over public transit in the area at the expense of mostly Democratic local officeholders.

The dispute, which will be Topic A at a transit meeting Thursday evening, has been bubbling for a while but boiled over in July.

For a second year in a row, the McDonnell administration has threatened to withhold tens of millions of state dollars from Northern Virginia transit agencies to press its quest for the governor to quickly appoint at least one representative to the Metro system board. At present, county or municipal officials hold all four of Virginia’s seats.

In a new twist, McDonnell’s point man on the issue, state Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, is also pushing for the right to appoint representatives to boards of local transit agencies statewide. That means the governor could demand a seat on boards of suburban bus services such as Fairfax Connector, Arlington ART and Alexandria DASH.

Some Northern Virginia elected officials are apoplectic. They’ve long treasured local autonomy over mass transit, not to mention the influence and publicity they get from serving on transit bodies.

McDonnell has already named someone to take a seat on the Metro board. But local officials say that appointment can’t take effect without first going through a lengthy process to amend the multi-state legal compact that governs Metro.

The wrangle highlights a number of ongoing, interconnected battles over local transportation: Democrats vs. Republicans. Local vs. state control. The D.C. suburbs vs. the rest of Virginia.

The bottom line is that McDonnell seems likely to succeed in getting a seat soon on the Metro board. That’s basically the price he has demanded for an earlier agreement to contribute an extra $50 million a year to help fund Metro upgrades as part of a deal with Maryland, the District and the federal government.

“We want a seat at the table, given that we’re giving money and given the importance of the issues in the region,” Connaughton said.

The key question then is whether the state government, and the Virginia Republican Party, use the extra influence in the future to promote public transit — or starve it.

Democrats accuse McDonnell of deliberately creating a fuss over the board seats to create a false impression that he’s making significant progress on transportation. They note the $50 million was in the works before McDonnell took office; beyond that, they say, the governor hasn’t found new, substantial, sustained money for rail and roads, because he has pledged not to raise taxes. One result: Available funds to build or improve secondary roads in Fairfax County currently total zero.

“When you really don’t have any money to put into transit, then you look for other success stories. For [McDonnell and Connaughton], they feel like gaining some lever of control over Metro is some measure of victory, and it doesn’t cost anything,” said Fairfax Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee). He is a Metro board member who could lose his seat to make room for the governor’s representative.

The tug-of-war over money is on the Thursday agenda of the influential but usually low-profile Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.

The commission’s chairman, Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), predicted Wednesday that there will be “a common-sense compromise.” Then, more than $30 million of stalled state funds would resume flowing to Metro and county and municipal transit agencies.

There could be real trouble if there’s no deal. Connaughton warned that “in the not too distant future” the state would take money now allocated for Northern Virginia agencies and give it to other recipients around the state. The commission said that without money by November, there will be service cuts.

Assuming they get the seats, what do the state Republicans plan to do with their newfound influence? The answer seems to be: Do everything possible to relieve traffic on the cheap.

For example, in describing the priorities for the state’s new representative on the Metro board, Connaughton didn’t mention finding more funds for the system. He said the state is focused on improving operations, safety and governance.

Connaughton also said that the state will be looking less at new heavy-rail systems such as Metro and more at cheaper alternatives such as van and bus services, telework and improved traffic management.

“It’s not just about writing a check,” he said. “It’s about making sure we’re in there, we’re solving some of the problems.”

That’s fine, in theory. But if there’s going to be real progress, then the state will have to start writing more checks.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

 
Read what others are saying