A D.C. Council member's retreat puts Metro funding back on track

Friday, April 24, 2009

AGAME OF chicken was unfolding between D.C. Council member Jim Graham and the Obama administration. Mr. Graham, chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, didn't want federal representatives added to the board until Obama administration officials guaranteed as much as $150 million a year for 10 years for the perpetually cash-starved agency; the administration didn't want to appropriate funding until Virginia, Maryland and the District, the lone outlier, agreed to the changes in the board's structure. Yesterday, Mr. Graham blinked. He told us that he would introduce D.C. legislation that addresses the administration's concerns. Mr. Graham rightly recognized that the moral high ground wasn't worth risking millions of dollars.

Metro is the only major transit agency in the country that doesn't have a dedicated source of funding. Legislation approved by Congress last year was supposed to change that. The bill, long championed by then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), authorized $1.5 billion in federal funding for capital projects over 10 years, to be matched cumulatively by Virginia, Maryland and the District.

The funding came with a catch: Virginia, Maryland and the District would have to not only pony up funding of their own but also amend the compact that governs Metro so that the General Services Administration could appoint four representatives to the agency's board, including two voting members. (The 12-member board has six voting members, two from each jurisdiction.) Virginia and Maryland approved legislation to seat the appointees, without conditions; the District passed an emergency bill that would seat the appointees only after federal officials allocated the funding.

Mr. Graham and other board members were loath to seat the appointees and get nothing in return. After all, they pointed out, the bill doesn't actually guarantee funding. Reasonable enough, and yet, with a transit-friendly administration in the White House and Democrats in charge of Congress, Metro's prospects are good. Besides, adding board members who don't represent particular jurisdictions could end up as a plus for the sometimes-parochial body.

Metro needs $12 billion in capital funding over the next 10 years to replace aging equipment and maintain services. That'll be tough to do with the guaranteed funding, nearly impossible without. Now that Mr. Graham has backed down, the Obama administration should honor its commitment to mass transit and come through with the money.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company