D.C. Prods Md., Va. to Join in Funding Metro

A regional agreement on Metro funding is key to securing federal aid to fix the aging transit system.
A regional agreement on Metro funding is key to securing federal aid to fix the aging transit system. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The D.C. Council announced unanimous support yesterday for a plan to dedicate about $50 million a year to Metro, putting pressure on Maryland and Virginia to follow suit.

A regional agreement that would create a steady flow of local money to Metro is key to securing federal funds to help fix the aging transit system. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) has introduced legislation that calls for Congress to give Metro $1.5 billion for capital projects only if the region comes up with dedicated operating funds for Metro.

"This is encouragement and a challenge to the commonwealth of Virginia and the state of Maryland," said council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D). The city's measure would go into effect only if the two states approve similar funding plans.

Leaders in Maryland and Virginia have not decided how they will respond to the challenge.

Under the bill, the District would set aside one-half of 1 percent of sales tax revenue for Metro. That would mean $43.3 million in the current year and more than $50 million in 2009, when sales tax revenue is projected to exceed $1 billion, according to the District's chief financial officer.

Council leaders stressed that the city would not increase the sales tax rate to cover the Metro funds.

"I'm very, very encouraged that the city council has stepped up to the plate," Davis said. "It keeps the pressure up on Capitol Hill."

The Metro system is the only major transportation system in the country that lacks a source of dedicated funding. Since Metro opened in 1976, the cost of operating trains and buses has been shared by the local communities that receive service. The costs of new rail cars, buses, garages and other big-ticket items are also split among local jurisdictions with help from the federal government.

Each year, the agency appeals to 10 governments in the Washington region for funding to meet its budget. That approach forces Metro to compete with police, schools and other municipal needs, makes long-term planning difficult and has led the agency to postpone important maintenance and upgrading, Metro officials said.

Metro's chief executive, Richard A. White, called the council's decision "a very important first step toward continued viability of the national capital region's subway and bus system."

A panel of business and civic leaders said in January that the transit system is doomed to a future of shortfalls, deferred investment and deterioration unless it gets a dedicated stream of funding. Metro faces a $2.4 billion shortfall for capital projects between now and 2015, the panel said. The panel recommended a 0.5 percent sales tax across the region.

Although politicians in the District have been warm to the idea of dedicated funding, their counterparts in Virginia and Maryland have been more reserved.

Maryland officials already believe they have a dedicated funding source for Metro, because the state's share of Metro funding is drawn from the state transportation fund.

Robert L. Flanagan, Maryland's transportation secretary, said last summer that better management and efforts to rein in spending would be prerequisites to any meaningful discussion of increased funding.

In Virginia, a spokeswoman for Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine (D) said yesterday that public transit is a key part of solving the transportation "crisis'' in Virginia, as is securing more federal dollars. She said Kaine does not yet have a position on the Metro funding issue.

In addition to funding Metro, Maryland and Virginia face significant challenges in paying for transportation projects that are entirely within their borders, such as the rail-to-Dulles project in Northern Virginia or the intercounty connector in Maryland.

Last year, a Brookings Institution study found that systems in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and elsewhere are guaranteed a portion of a gas tax, sales tax or some other revenue to help pay their costs.

The bill introduced yesterday was referred to the council's Committee on Finance and Revenue.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company