Possible loss of federal funding puts Metro overhaul at risk

Safety initiatives will continue for Metro, but if Congress cuts the agency’s current capital funding by $150 million, virtually all other efforts to maintain and refurbish the transit system would suffer, General Manager Richard Sarles said Monday.

Train delays would become more frequent, the transit system would order fewer new buses, Metrorail stations would become shabbier and worn-out ticket machines might not be replaced, he said.

“We are in really bad shape if that funding doesn’t come through,” he said.

Sarles described a massive slowdown in the attempt to reverse a decade of malaise filled with accidents, equipment failures, and erosion of rider confidence in the bus and rail system.

“The customers will really bear the burden,” he said. “They will see the system deteriorating at a more rapid rate.”

Meeting with The Washington Post’s editorial board, Sarles presented a list of consequences that he said would follow if Congress gives final approval to a $150 million cut in Metro funding for the current fiscal year. That cut, and the potential loss of matching funds from the District, Maryland and Virginia, would reduce the agency’s $851 million capital budget by 35 to 40 percent, he said.

The funding cuts were included in a House spending bill by Republican lawmakers who have sought to curtail federal spending by $60 billion. That bill failed in the Senate, but a Senate-crafted measure that included $6 billion in spending reductions but that would have preserved Metro funding also failed to win Senate approval.

Sarles said that the Washington region’s congressional delegation and elected officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District had rallied to preserve the funding and that business leaders were lobbying influential GOP leaders.

In 2008, Congress authorized $1.5 billion in federal funds for safety-related capital improvements at Metro over 10 years. Congress must appropriate the money each year, and local jurisdictions must provide matching funds.

Metro’s overall capital spending plan includes upgrades to track equipment recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board following its investigation of a June 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people and injured dozens. The NTSB found that nearly half of the 3,000 track circuit modules Metro uses could seriously malfunction. Metro is replacing the equipment, and Sarles said that work would be unaffected by the loss of the $150 million.

He also said that Metro’s safety goals would be achieved even if the funding is lost, citing ongoing changes in the organization’s work culture and new hires that have reinvigorated the safety department. The NTSB had said a lax safety culture contributed to the Red Line crash.

“We won’t operate something unsafely,” Sarles said. “We now have a good, strong safety department.”

He said that unsafe rail cars or buses will be removed from service if they cannot be repaired or replaced. Replacement of unreliable onboard “NextBus” equipment would also be canceled.

The implementation of a replacement for SmarTrip, the system’s electronic fare payment system, would also be delayed, Sarles said. Metro has a two-year supply of SmarTrip cards, which are no longer being made. The transit authority issued a request for proposals in December for the creation of a new system that would allow fare payments using chip-enabled credit cards, federal ID cards, smartphones and other methods.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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