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Bill Offering Metro $1.5 Billion Insists On More Oversight, Dedicated Funding

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 28, 2005

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III plans to file a bill today asking Congress to make a major new commitment to Metro and provide $1.5 billion to keep trains, tracks, stations and buses in good repair and relieve the crowding that threatens to overwhelm the system.

But the money, which no other transit system in the country would receive and which Metro says it deserves because of its unique role in carrying federal workers and visitors in the nation's capital, comes with several strings attached.

The bill says Metro can have the funds only if it hires an inspector general, who would track the way the agency is managed and spends its money, investigate employee reports of wrongdoing and publicly report the findings.

The legislation, a complex proposal that also includes detailed instructions about several Metro land deals pending in Virginia and Maryland, would add two seats to the Metro board of directors for representatives of the federal government.

"To get a billion and a half dollars out of my colleagues, they're not going to leave this thing up to the

District and the Virginia and Maryland locals," Davis said.

The congressman also said Metro needs additional oversight and better accountability in light of articles published last month by The Washington Post detailing how Metro mismanaged nearly $1 billion in recent rail car and escalator projects. The newspaper's investigation also found that the agency ignored safety warnings and failed to effectively manage its program to transport the disabled.

"We've seen bad management contracting on a fairly regular basis," said Davis, a Republican from Fairfax County who will introduce the bill this morning at a hearing before the House Committee on Government Reform, which he chairs. "These are built-in mechanisms that will make it harder to duplicate the kind of contractual failures that they've had in the last couple of years."

Finally, the bill stipulates that federal money would flow only if the Washington region creates a dedicated source of money for Metro, such as a portion of a sales tax earmarked for transit. That is a significant political challenge to regional leaders and would require the approval of legislatures in Maryland and Virginia as well as the D.C. Council.

"Our federal partners have thrown down the gauntlet," said T. Dana Kauffman, a Fairfax supervisor who chairs the Metro board. He said the lure of federal money might be enough to persuade local and state governments to create a stream of money for Metro. "This may be our best chance in a generation to get stable and reliable funding."

Davis said the bill has the support of Republican congressional leaders and the White House as well as bipartisan backing from the minority whip, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), and his Democratic colleagues Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Albert R. Wynn (Md.), James P. Moran Jr. (Va.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).

"The two major components of this are funding and accountability," Van Hollen said. "They go hand in hand."

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Davis's Republican colleague in Northern Virginia, also is a supporter.

"The ducks are pretty well lined up," Davis said.

Amidst the bill's lofty language about the importance of Metro to the region are three parochial measures that would govern the sale or lease of small tracts of Metro land near the Vienna, Takoma and Largo Town Center stations.

Davis included language that would prohibit Metro from selling or leasing 3.75 acres of land at the Vienna Station, about six miles from his home. Pulte Homes has been negotiating with Metro to buy the plot to build MetroWest, a complex of 12-story residential and office buildings. The Metro property would be just a sliver of the 56-acre complex but would serve as a critical link to the station. Davis has said he opposes the project because he believes it is too dense for the area.

Van Hollen inserted a measure that would prevent Metro from selling or leasing land it owns around the Takoma Station unless it meets with Takoma Park officials and presents a development plan that shows that any project would not increase congestion, traffic or pollution and would maintain green space.

The Largo provision, added by Wynn, stipulates that Metro cannot sell land it owns next to the Prince George's station unless it consults with local leaders and plans owner-occupied apartments or condominiums that also house commercial outlets.

Metro, which turns 30 next year, is approaching a point when many components of the subway must be refurbished or replaced. At the same time, subway ridership is surging -- the average weekday rail ridership in June was 734,582, the highest in Metro history. That means crowding on trains and platforms during peak travel. Riders are complaining that they can't get on trains, let alone get a seat. Delays are increasing, and service is growing less reliable.

If Congress approves the bill, the federal money would allow Metro to buy 340 rail cars, enough to finally allow Metro to operate at its full capacity and run eight-car trains on every line during peak periods. Metro currently has only enough cars to operate a mix of six- and four-car trains during peak periods. It would mean additional escalators and elevators and expanded mezzanines at some of Metro's busiest stations: Metro Center, Gallery Place and Union Station. And it would enable Metro to build underground pedestrian walkways linking Farragut North with Farragut West and Metro Center with Gallery Place.

The money also would mean Metro could buy 275 buses, build three bus garages and make improvements to 140 miles of bus routes, including technology that would give buses advantages on the road to speed their travel, such as devices that hold lights green for buses.

If Congress approves the bill, Metro would receive $150 million annually for 10 years starting in 2007. Combined with an emergency infusion of $1.8 billion recently approved by local governments, the funding would enable Metro to maintain its equipment and keep pace with growing ridership until 2020, Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White said.

The federal government's dependence on Metro was apparent during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. When the transit system closed early, the federal government also shut down, saying it could not function if Metro was not operating. More than 40 percent of Metro's rush-hour commuters are federal workers, and 300 federal offices are within walking distance of a Metro station, White said.

The extra money could not be used to pay Metro's escalating operating costs. For that, Davis said, the region has to set aside a stream of money. Metro is the only major transit system in the country without a dedicated source of funding.

It has to ask for operating subsidies each year from 10 governments in the Washington area. That forces it to compete for funds with schools, police and other municipal needs.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company