D.C. region’s leaders will need to make tough decisions on financing Metro improvements

During 2013, the D.C. region applauded the transit authority’s plans to make all rush-hour trains eight cars long, expand the capacity of core stations and set up rapid bus routes. In 2014, the D.C. region will be asked to make at least a down payment on the program.

That feels as good as having Santa collect in August before delivering in December.

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For the transit authority, the collections come in the form of the subsidies local jurisdictions pay to support the improvement program known as Metro 2025. But these local subsidies support not only the goodies of the future but also the daily operations of the trains and buses and the huge rebuilding meant to fix all the things that are broken.

Metro board members have split personalities on these subsidies. They want all the service enhancements for riders. But they also represent the interests of the government entities that appointed them, and those governments have many interests other than transit.

Mary H. Hynes, a board member representing transit-friendly Arlington County, summarized these local government concerns when she responded to Metro General Manager Richard Sarles after he presented the long-term transit budget Thursday.

“We are facing, as a region, some real challenges,” she said. “Each of our stories is slightly different. But these are not easy times to be in local government dealing with funding of this magnitude.”

The local jurisdictions are putting in about $200 million a year into Metro’s long-term improvement program, she calculated. The increased spending required to finance not only the rebuilding program but also the goodies in Metro 2025 presumes an additional $150 million coming from these same sources, Hynes said.

“So for most of us,” she continued, “it means we almost have to double what we’re doing, which is pretty dramatic.”

She said this at the end of a year in which Virginia and Maryland agreed to big increases in spending on transportation. The problem, as Hynes noted, is that “we’re still shaking all that out.” The governments and the agencies receiving all this new funding haven’t had time to assess its impact on long-range programs, such as financing Metro improvements.

Board members played their role of jurisdictional representatives in asking Sarles for options on which goodies to finance when.

Sarles was amenable to developing various scenarios. “I think the way to proceed with that is for the jurisdictions to think about what they can afford,” he told the board members. He said Metro should not sacrifice the scope of the work but can be flexible on the timing.

I asked him if that meant Metro 2025 and all its wonderful things would become Metro 2026 or ’27. “Or Metro 2021 or ’23,” he said. The wish list is big enough to advance some priorities while waiting on others.

Out of all the worthy targets that would improve the transit system’s capacity, does he have one that ranks highest? He replied instantly: “Eight-car trains.”

Eight-car trains isn’t a purchase. It’s a process.

The region’s political leaders can’t simply decide that they want eight-car trains in 2021, so they’ll buy enough rail cars in 2020 to make that happen. They also have to start investing in the maintenance and storage facilities and in the power system to support such a fleet, a program that will take years.

That’s why Sarles wants Year One to be 2014. At the same time, he won’t make it easy for regional leaders to back away from the very expensive commitment already made to rebuild the transit system. We’re halfway through “digging out of the hole we were in” on delayed maintenance upgrades, Sarles said, and we have about three years to go.

“That’s our top priority — to reach a state of good repair,” he told the board members.

Sarles doesn’t want to erode the first goal, rebuilding what we have, for the sake of the second goal, a transit system that will be a match for the D.C. region as it approaches mid-century.

Sarles said later that he has learned over four decades in transit management that human nature is tempted by objects that are “bright, new and shiny.” Sort of like eight-car trains.

Fixing rail fasteners, crossties and switches lacks that allure, but it’s fundamental to a transit system.

This may create some tension, because it’s the new stuff that will have the greatest “Wow!” factor among riders.

Hynes said commitments to both goals are firm but noted that Metro board members will have to make their case in jurisdictions where these various investments in transit all amount to the same thing: big money.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

 
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