Accident Raises Issues Over Funding for Metro
Thursday, June 25, 2009
The deadly crash Monday on Metro's Red Line has raised a political question: Do federal, state and local officials have the will to pay for a modernized, safe and expanding subway system?
"Hopefully, this tragedy will remind people you can't run things on the cheap," said former Virginia representative Tom Davis, a Republican who pushed to boost Metro funding before his decision last year to retire. The transit system has been shorted the necessary cash for a decade, he said.
"It's the capital of the free world. Accidents here reflect on the whole country," Davis said. "You've got old trains. You've got old tracks and old stations. . . . There's a price for that."
Late last year, Congress passed a bill that authorized $1.5 billion in federal funding for Metro over the next decade. President George W. Bush signed the measure into law, and Maryland, Virginia and the District have taken the necessary legal steps to match the money, putting $3 billion within reach.
But President Obama's first budget failed to include the federal government's initial share of $150 million. Since Monday's crash, the region's congressional delegation has stepped up efforts to get that first tranche into the budget being crafted on Capitol Hill. Needed maintenance and expansion "can't be done with fairy dust. It has to be done with dollars," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat who replaced Davis in January.
With the recession ravaging revenue and transportation projects starved nationwide, those dollars are scarce. Finding $150 million is not a "simple adjustment," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.).
"I think there is a desire to do it among the people we've talked to," Cardin said. "Translating that into action is going to be more difficult because of the budget. The budget is just tight."
The Metro system is already slated to receive a significant, one-time shot of $202 million in stimulus funds. And yesterday, the region's congressional delegation announced the final, $34.3 million piece of a federal grant to buy rail cars. But officials said Metro is billions of dollars short, and they are eager to lock in a dedicated funding stream that would keep paying year after year.
The accident is being drawn into the larger, and at times charged, struggle over decaying infrastructure.
"They're dragging their feet, and we don't have the funding," said Metro board member Chris Zimmerman. "The truth of the matter is we need about $11 billion over the next decade, and perhaps half of that is unaccounted for."
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said officials "were all pleasantly surprised" at how swiftly the Metro funding bill passed last year. Officials were expecting funding to start in 2011. The District's arrangements on the match were also not fully in place as the budget was being drafted, they said. "The secretary supports the president's budget," the spokesman said.
Local officials said they still think the Obama administration is sympathetic on Metro funding; the issue is one of timing. But Monday's accident has led to some tension.