Metro's Shaky Future

Sunday, December 16, 2007

METRO HAS bowed to the inevitable by approving the largest fare and parking increases in the agency's history. Sensibly, the transit agency's board also decided that henceforth it would seek regular (and therefore more gradual) fare increases every two years, tied to the consumer price index. That's smarter than waiting four years between adjustments, as it just did, thereby leaving board members no choice but to raise rates sharply and infuriate a daily bus and rail ridership of 1.2 million passengers.

Unfortunately, the uproar that surrounded the months-long debate over the increases was really a sideshow. The more important and tougher problem for Metro, and by extension for the nation's capital, is how it will pay to expand, renew and maintain the system. That, and not the predictable squabbles over annual budgets and fares, is the $3 billion question.

In fact, $3 billion is a conservative assessment of the system's capital needs over the coming decade -- for new rail cars, buses and construction projects -- based on an already three-year-old report that used outdated estimates. But even the $3 billion now is far from assured.

At the heart of the anxiety over Metro is its status as the nation's only major transit system that lacks a dedicated stream of funding. That is largely a function of the fact that it serves so many jurisdictions, whose track record of cooperation is spotty. In an innovative attempt to address that problem and secure the necessary money, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) proposed legislation that would authorize half the amount -- $150 million in federal funding annually for 10 years -- if the District, Virginia and Maryland together made firm commitments to pony up the same amount.

Prodded by the prospect of that fat federal match, the three have done so, after a fashion. Virginia's commitment is the most secure, consisting of new revenue sources dedicated to Metro. The District did its part by pledging to divert a portion of existing sales tax revenue for Metro; never mind how it would plug the resulting gap in the city's budget. Maryland has given its own sort of assurance by raising $450 million in fresh annual funding for transportation and including its share for Metro in the state's transportation plan.

Metro board members from Virginia and the District are skeptical of Maryland's move, while officials in Annapolis insist that the state's commitment is ironclad. But those jitters are overshadowed by graver doubts about the federal half of the funding formula, which at the moment is being held up by a single senator -- Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) -- despite its apparent overwhelming support in Congress.

Mr. Coburn, a fiscal conservative, is blocking dozens of money bills. In this case, he is jeopardizing not just the future of an urban transit system but the operations of the federal government, whose employees use Metro to get to and from work every day. That is foolish in the extreme. It does not require much imagination to foresee a terrorist attack that sows panic in the federal workforce, which would depend heavily on Metro to maintain some semblance of order. Will Mr. Coburn be left stammering an explanation about how he sacrificed the emergency response capabilities of the nation's capital on the altar of fiscal rigidity?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company