Obama’s cut in Metro funds is ominous

Robert McCartney
Columnist February 15, 2012

Although Metro officials and Democratic politicians are trying desperately to mute their criticism, there’s no avoiding the fact that President Obama’s proposal to cut federal funds for our region’s transit system is a worrisome step in the wrong direction.

It looks like a small trim: $15 million of the $150 million that Uncle Sam is supposed to give Metro each year to invest in safety upgrades and modernization.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

But it sets a horrible precedent. It would shortchange Metro for the first time on a long-term funding deal that’s been in place for only three years and was obtained only after more than four years of hard work beforehand.

The ultimate result could easily be a slowdown in Metro’s encouraging initial efforts to repair some of the damage that years of under-funding and weak leadership had caused. Possible casualties include new rail cars and escalators and improved track signals.

Area business leaders and other transit advocates decried the proposed reduction, included in Obama’s budget released Monday.

“A deal is a deal. Metro is in the midst of a real improvement turnaround. The last thing we need is the federal government cutting the [money] for a 10-year agreement just when we need more funds and just when we are getting our house in order,” said Jim Dinegar, chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Dinegar and others urged the local congressional delegation to restore the money. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who have played big roles in protecting Metro money in the past, had better get busy.

Unfortunately, it’s likely the president’s proposed trim will just encourage budget-cutters in the House to demand an even larger reduction, according to House staff members from both parties.

“If the president cuts it by $15 million, then Ryan will cut it by $30 million,” a legislative aide grumbled, referring to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The staff member spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly.

Both Metro and prominent Democrats in our region went to considerable lengths to avoid faulting the president. Metro issued a carefully worded statement that referred only to its desire to get “the full funding needed to continue crucial safety and reliability work.”

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a strong transit supporter, would not utter a negative word. “We certainly understand the budgetary challenges” the president faces, spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said.

By contrast, Virginia Republicans enthusiastically pummeled Obama and other Democrats for betraying Metro.

“We are very disappointed that the president’s budget does not fully support this vital transportation system,” said Tucker Martin, spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).

The Virginia GOP noted that it was accused of “budgetary blackmail” in an earlier dispute when McDonnell was the one threatening to withhold funds from Metro.

One ray of positive news was the promise from Maryland, Virginia and the District that a cut in the federal grant would not automatically trigger an equivalent reduction in matching funds that they have been giving Metro under the deal. The Maryland and Virginia governor’s offices, and the District transportation department, all said they would continue to give Metro $50 million each, for a total of $150 million, even if the U.S. Treasury cuts back to $135 million.

Nevertheless, the president’s move could be an omen. It suggests the federal deficit has grown so large that Metro can’t count on getting federal money it needs in coming years to restore itself to a state of good repair, much less expand.

Obama has nothing against the Metro system. He proposed the cut only because of “difficult fiscal circumstances,” Obama’s budget document said.

In fact, the rest of the president’s budget called for a big increase in funds for mass transit, nationwide. That could mean up to $30 million more for Metro, so it would come out ahead.

The problem is that that part of the president’s budget is dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House. If anything, Republicans there are looking to reduce spending on transit. They want to reverse a 30-year practice and stop using any proceeds from the federal gasoline tax to help pay for mass transit.

It’s bad enough that a Democratic president is willing to save money at Metro’s expense. Rail and bus riders in our area, and everybody concerned about congestion, should hope it’s not a sign of worse things to come.

To read previous columns by Robert McCartney, go to postlocal.com.

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