Metro leaders and advocates pleaded for more than $1 billion in federal aid to update the aging transit network and warned a House committee yesterday that without adequate funding, the rail and bus system could enter a disastrous downward spiral of neglect.
"Many Metrorail trains are chronically overcrowded, escalators and elevators don't work and Metrorail cars and Metro buses too often break down, causing riders to be late for work or getting home," Jack Corbett, a director of MetroRiders.org, a recently formed transit riders group, told the Committee on Government Reform. "We're fearful that without some congressional leadership, there never will be a good year to resolve this issue."
The hearing follows a report issued last month by a panel that identified a $2.4 billion gap in Metro's funding over the next 10 years and recommended that the federal government pay for a substantial portion of that. The report was sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Federal City Council and the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The committee members who attended the hearing were local -- Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) -- and seemed receptive to the idea of securing money for their constituents' transit needs.
The difficulty for Metro will come in convincing the rest of Congress that the Washington area should get special consideration when it comes to federal money for transit system upkeep. Some have argued that Washington should not be treated differently than other regions with rail and bus service.
But Metro advocates say that because the federal government is based in Washington and Metro needs to carry its workers, the system has added responsibilities. They also point to the examples of Paris, Tokyo and Rome in arguing that the local transit system serves millions of people from throughout the country who come to the capital to visit national sites.
The Metro system also bears the brunt of heightened anti-terror measures required by the city's national prominence.
Mostly, though, the advocates noted, the system originally was envisioned and continues to operate as a means of moving federal employees. About 47 percent of peak-hour Metrorail trips involve federal workers, they said.
"Metro, in short, possesses a national significance," said Davis, the chairman of the committee.
He described the hearing as a way of "laying the groundwork" for a persuasive argument for federal aid for Metro.
"There's always a do-nothing cost, and that cost here could mean the end of the Metro system," he said.
Metro leaders, as well as the committee members, also are exploring the possibility of a regular, dedicated source of funding locally. For example, last month's report recommended a regional sales tax.
State and local contributions, as well as ticket revenue, provide most of Metro's funding.
"It is key that the federal government be a full partner in this effort -- just as it was 50 years ago when the Congress mandated the development of what today some call 'America's subway,' " Metro board Chairman T. Dana Kauffman told the committee.
Speakers at yesterday's hearing warned that without more money, the system could slip into a state of disrepair from which it would be difficult to reemerge.
"It's either pay now or pay vastly more later -- which is exactly what happened in New York," Kauffman said. "We have a $24 billion investment to protect here."