Region Closes In on Federal Funds for Metro, but D.C. Wants a Guarantee

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Virginia and Maryland have agreed to terms under which Congress would provide a steady stream of much-needed federal funding for Metro. But the District is weighing whether to go along or risk a delay by pressing for concessions on the makeup of the Metro board.

Last fall, Congress approved spending up to $1.5 billion to maintain the cash-strapped and aging Metro system, to be paid out over 10 years. But before the money can be released, Maryland, Virginia and the District must each take legislative action to modify the regional compact that governs the operation and funding of Metro, and they must agree to match the federal funds from dedicated funding sources. Each jurisdiction must also agree to the addition of two federally appointed voting board members.

Metro officials wanted the jurisdictions to move quickly so that the transit agency could ask Congress to distribute the first $150 million as part of next year's federal budget. The budget process has begun and picks up in earnest next month when President Obama releases his detailed budget request.

Despite their political differences over transportation issues, Maryland and Virginia have adopted the needed legislation, moving more swiftly than many officials had expected. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed a funding bill last week; Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) signed an identical one last month.

The District was the first to pass a funding bill, in February. But its version is at odds with the two states' legislation in that it requires the federal government to actually provide the funding, not just an authorization or promise of funds, in order for federal members to be seated on the Metro board.

"Ultimately, the three bills have to have the identical language," said Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. "The District of Columbia will either have to change its bill or Virginia and Maryland will have to change theirs."

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, who co-sponsored the District's bill and is also Metro board chairman, said he will be consulting fellow council members and is planning to raise the issue during a council hearing on Metro's budget tomorrow.

The District's bill, which was passed as emergency legislation, expires May 24.

Graham said the District wants to work with Maryland and Virginia on the issue. At the same time, he said, he wants a guarantee from the federal government. He said an "assurance that this is a funded promise from the United States Congress" would help him "reach this accommodation."

If the District does not enact new legislation, "nothing goes to Congress," and in theory, Congress has no basis for releasing the federal funds, said Maryland board member Peter Benjamin, who has been involved in talks among the governors and city officials on the issue.

The Maryland and Virginia governors "believe there is a moral imperative upon the federal government to provide funding if the locals have done their part and the federal government has people on the Metro board."

Officials are hoping that the Obama administration includes money for Metro in its spending plan, which would give their efforts a boost. "It helps us tremendously if he lists the appropriation as a line item in the budget," Catoe said. The local congressional delegation has been lobbying administration officials, including by personally calling Peter Orszag, who heads the Office of Management and Budget.

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