Senate Approves $1.5 Billion Plan For Metro Funding

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

The U.S. Senate voted last night to authorize long-sought federal funding for Washington's cash-strapped and aging Metro system, clearing a major hurdle toward providing $1.5 billion over 10 years to help maintain the nation's second-busiest rail system.

The Senate passage is the furthest the measure has advanced since Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) began the effort two years ago to secure a reliable source of financial support for Metro.

The bill, part of a major rail safety reform package with billions of dollars for Amtrak, was passed by the House last week and goes to the president for signing. Supporters say a veto is unlikely, partly because of the veto-proof margin of last night's 74 to 24 vote.

Although several other requirements must be met before Congress begins appropriating the funds, last night's vote was critical because the Senate had never voted on the plan. With this step, officials predicted that the federal money could become available next fall.

Metro is the nation's only major transit agency without a significant source of dedicated funding, such as a portion of a sales or gas tax. The money would be used to buy rail cars and buses, and repair leaky tunnels and deteriorating station platforms.

"Metro is back on track," Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said in a statement. "Today we have taken a giant leap forward in securing dedicated funding for Metro so that it can meet the needs of the federal government, the millions of tourists who visit our nation's Capital, and the businesses that rely on the country's second-busiest rapid transit system."

The legislation requires that Virginia, Maryland and the District each dedicate $50 million a year for 10 years to Metro. The District has set aside a portion of its sales tax revenue for its share, and Maryland's portion is included in the state's capital transportation budget.

Virginia's lawmakers have failed to come up with a statewide plan for funding transportation. This week, however, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said the state would provide its share. State law requires the commonwealth to fully match federal transportation funds, Kaine said, adding that Metro funding would be a top priority even if that meant reallocating money from other transportation projects.

The developments mark the most progress so far in providing $300 million a year for 10 years in federal and state funds to keep trains, buses and stations working.

"This could not come at a better time," said a statement from Davis, who will retire from Congress in January. "As we have learned in recent weeks, Metro is in dire need of . . . an infusion of funding. Train cars and buses must be replaced. Platforms are crumbling. . . .We need to stabilize the future of Metro, and this goes a long way toward addressing its long-term needs."

More than 1.2 million train, bus and paratransit trips are taken on Metro on an average weekday. About 40 percent of rush-hour riders are federal workers, or almost 200,000 people, and officials have long argued that Metro is vital to the federal government and therefore deserves more federal dollars.

"Securing a federal investment to ensure the safety and efficiency of this system is long overdue," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md).

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