Wanted: Area leaders who have enough political courage to back Metro’s plans

Robert McCartney
Columnist January 23, 2013

As I leafed through Metro’s appealing and persuasive (but expensive) new plan to rebuild and expand the transit system over the coming quarter-century, a familiar, nagging question kept arising in my mind:

What politicians, business leaders or others in our region are going to step up and make this happen, for the sake of our common prosperity, a cleaner environment and improved quality of life?

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

Right now, the available candidates don’t give me a lot of confidence. None seems to possess the necessary mix of guts and authority to deliver on the promise in Metro’s long-term strategy. The proposal is to be formally presented to the system’s board of directors Thursday.

We can only hope that the arguments for supporting Metro — even at the cost of higher taxes, fares and fees — are so compelling that our area ultimately rises to the occasion.

Take politicians in Virginia and Maryland. Judging by the current legislative posturing over transportation in Richmond and Annapolis, our elected leaders are so scared to raise taxes that they risk letting their road systems go bankrupt. They would need a sizable injection of political courage to raise billions of dollars for transit so Metro can handle the region’s swelling population.

Thinking long term for Metro

How about local business leaders? Many actively back Metro, but our area’s business community is too fragmented to have the necessary impact. The Greater Washington Board of Trade, one of Metro’s most prominent supporters, can’t do it alone. It needs help, especially from defense, technology and medical companies in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs that are prone to be parochial.

“We need to drill into those communities to help them understand the importance of Metro succeeding,” said Jim Dyke, a prominent Virginia lawyer and member of Metro’s board of directors.

Then there’s the federal government. Its employees are the system’s No. 1 users, but Congress’s support right now is shaky. Metro needs more federal dollars but will probably receive fewer in the near future, given the risk of sequestration or other spending cuts.

Is Metro General Manager Richard Sarles the man for the job? He and his staff have put together a commendable initial strategy, but they’re not the ones to sell it to the public. Sarles is a transportation engineer from New Jersey, not a Washington area political kingpin. He stresses that others must get involved.

“The business community and others, the environmental community, have to raise their voices to say, ‘We need this,’ and that creates a climate in which the political leaders, the elected leaders, can make those kinds of decisions,” Sarles said.

Finally, what about the riding public? It seems eager to see Metro improved — as long as somebody else pays for it. The public would rather complain about delays and broken escalators than lobby their representatives to find money to help fix service.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve criticized Metro’s performance in the past, and riders are absolutely right to demand that it deliver a better product. Still, riders and their neighbors must help bear the cost.

Metro’s strategic plan that will guide the transit agency’s decisions over the next 10 years.

Given all that, why should I or anybody else think Metro has a prayer of raising the money it says it needs?

I hold out hope because the alternative of steady deterioration of the region’s core transit network ought to be unacceptable.

Also, the potential payoffs are real. Regional leaders can make the case over time if they commit to educate the public about the benefits.

Metro wants first to extend indefinitely the $1 billion that it now gets each year for capital investments from local and state jurisdictions and Congress. That would allow it to complete and sustain safety and equipment upgrades undertaken since 2009.

It’s got the percentage of functioning escalators up to about 90 percent. Now it can shoot for 99 percent, as in Singapore.

Then Metro wants an additional $1.24 billion a year to expand capacity by paying for longer trains and two new tunnels downtown, including one under the Potomac. Georgetown could finally get a station.

“This will require heavy political lifting, but I believe the leadership will emerge,” said Chuck Bean, the new executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

“It’s not an exaggeration that all of our regional growth plans — not to mention quality of life and environmental goals — depend upon Metro’s success, yet Metro’s revenue structure is inadequate and its funding levels are insufficient,” he said.

The Metro plan will be one of the most important tests of whether the Washington region can conquer past shortcomings to achieve a goal of obvious importance to all.

I discuss local issues on Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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