House Backs $1.5 Billion For Metro -- With a Hitch

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The House of Representatives passed legislation yesterday that would commit $1.5 billion over 10 years to improve the Metro transit system as long as the District, Maryland and Virginia guarantee to match that money. The vote was 242 to 120, just exceeding the needed two-thirds majority.

The measure, part of a plan to keep trains, tracks, stations and buses in good repair and increase federal oversight, now goes to the Senate, where Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), sponsor of the House bill, said he hopes passage will be "less of a problem."

"Metro is central to all of the federal activities," Davis said. "In many ways, Metro is the lifeblood of the federal government. Federal workers make up more than half of rush-hour subway riders, and more than 50 federal agencies are located adjacent to subway stations."

The funds would come from federal revenue from offshore drilling operations.

But the federal 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, is contingent on a $1.5 billion match from the District, Maryland and Virginia. The regional jurisdictions have to create a major, dedicated source of money for Metro -- such as a portion of a sales tax earmarked for transit -- to cover their share of capital and operational expenses.

The District has approved a measure to dedicate 0.5 percent of city sales tax revenue to Metro, but efforts to establish a stable funding source for the transit authority failed in the Maryland and Virginia legislatures. The Maryland General Assembly is not scheduled to meet again this year, but Virginia's is likely to reconvene this fall to renew its contentious debate on transportation financing.

Davis said he hoped that yesterday's actions will increase the pressure on Maryland and Virginia legislators. "We have a lot of people who don't like spending money on mass transit," he said.

Supporters of the effort say the funding is needed to ensure the future of the nation's second-busiest rail system and fifth-busiest bus system, which are vital to the region's economy. But the task represented significant political challenges for legislators this spring.

Gladys Mack, who chairs Metro's board of directors, welcomed the House vote.

"We are pleased that Mr. Davis and the Congress recognize the importance of a healthy Metro to the workings of the federal government, both on an everyday basis and in an emergency," she said in a statement.

Fiscal conservatives objected to the measure.

"At a time when our nation is engaged in a war against terrorism abroad and faces a growing fiscal crisis at home, the federal government should not be handing a $1.5 billion bailout to the DC Metro System," Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) said in a statement on his Web site. He chairs the Republican Study Committee's budget and spending task force.

In yesterday's vote, 158 Democrats and 83 Republicans supported the bill; 111 Republicans and 9 Democrats voted against, including Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) and Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.).

Because the bill did not pass under an expedited procedure earlier in the day, it required a two-thirds majority on the House floor.

By itself, the bill that passed yesterday would not commit any money to the Metro system. The money for Metro was secured through a provision Davis added last month to another House bill that would devote a portion of revenue from offshore drilling to Metro's revitalization.

Both bills still must be voted on by the Senate.

The bill passed yesterday would also require the appointment of an inspector general and add four federal members -- two voting and two alternate -- to Metro's 12-member board of directors. Metro has already established and funded a position for an inspector general, and members said they hope to have one in place by October.

Since the creation of the transit authority in the 1960s, it has relied on money from the federal government, from 10 governments in the Washington area and from its fareboxes.

Metro increased fares in 2003 and 2004 and regularly goes to the local governments for money to meet its budget. For years, Metro's leaders have appealed to local governments to provide a steady, consistent flow of money so the transit system will not have to compete with other public needs, such as education.

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