By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Zimmerman referred to what he called the "absurdity" of comments from a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board pointing to a lack of action on the board's recommendation after a 2004 crash that older trains be swiftly phased out or retrofitted with stronger frames.
"Everybody knows that the 1000 Series needs to be replaced. We've been talking about it for years," Zimmerman said, referring to Metro's oldest rail cars, bought in the 1970s. "It's precisely the reason you need additional funding," he said, noting that about 300 remain in service and that replacing them would take roughly $1 billion and several years.
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. Still, Davis said he sees a link between funding and safety.
"The money here would make a huge difference, in lives saved and everything else," he said.
Connolly said the system needs new money "to make sure it can continue to meet the demands of a growing region and be safe."
Funding shortfalls have meant making tradeoffs, but not on safety, Zimmerman said. Riders want more trains, he said. They want to be able to sit down. They want to travel quickly.
"We don't have enough money to run the system at the level people expect here," Zimmerman said. That has meant sacrificing convenience and amenities. But "safety comes first. In my experience, people don't ever skimp on safety," he said.
Metro's priorities and management have been at issue before, including among opponents of additional funding such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). His concerns haven't dissipated after Monday's events, a spokesman said.
During the final year of the Bush administration, federal transportation officials questioned Metro's ability to pay for needed upkeep, given its expansion plans.
The issue arose over whether the federal government should invest nearly $1 billion in extending Metro to Tysons Corner. Bush transportation officials moved to undo funding for the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport but reversed course after fervent lobbying by the Washington area's congressional delegation and business leaders.
Federal officials said the line would be too costly and could siphon resources and strain the rest of the system.
Connolly and other officials said they interpreted that simply as an excuse offered by ideologues in the Bush administration who opposed transit projects and supported privatizing the transportation network.
In an interview, former transportation secretary Mary Peters said the focus on maintenance was not an excuse.
"As budgets began to get tighter, our concern was that enough money be kept in the kitty" for maintenance and repairs, she said. "It's a lot more fun to build new sections."
When putting an addition on a house, you also need enough money to repair the roof, Peters said.