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Long-Unheeded Metro Pleas Must Be Heard

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's been frustrating this week listening to local politicians lament that Metro hasn't received sufficient funding, given that they are the ones who could have provided it.

Asked what should be done to help the transit system, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of Metro's board of directors, began by emphasizing the need to give it a reliable, steady stream of cash. When asked why Metro didn't have that, he shifted emphasis and said the available money is "not enough, but we have done a lot."

Sadly, it's taken Monday's tragic Red Line crash to focus public attention on the fact that the region's political class, and the federal government, have shortchanged Metro for a decade despite repeated, reasonable pleas from the transit system that it needed urgent help.

Now, the region's elected officials must take responsibility for persuading the public to make necessary hard choices. The area must either ante up hundreds of millions of tax dollars a year, on top of what it's already providing, or let Metro raise fares and reduce service, or both. Otherwise, the system will risk deteriorating from being a source of regional pride to one of disappointment.

It's not just the money. Some politicians have meddled too much in Metro's operations and tolerated a dysfunctional governing structure. This has sometimes hampered efforts by professionals such as General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. to do what's best for the system as a whole.

What's important now, after mourning the dead, is to look ahead. There's no good alternative to renovating Metro, given the need to reduce traffic and greenhouse gases, and to move around the 2 million new residents that the region is expected to attract by 2030. Here are some steps to take:

Lock in the dedicated funding. Everybody's jumped to urge going forward with the painfully overdue plan to give Metro "dedicated funding," a reliable flow of dollars for equipment and other capital investments. Every other major transit system in the nation has one.

Its prospects are pretty good, but it's not a sure thing. Last year, Congress authorized $150 million a year for Metro after the District, Virginia and Maryland promised to match it: $50 million from each jurisdiction each year.

Maddeningly, however, the Obama administration's budget for the fiscal year starting in October did not include the money. One factor was federal unhappiness with squabbling among the three jurisdictions over an issue regarding the Metro board. Getting that money this year should be a top priority for the region's congressional delegation.

Find still more money. The $300 million a year from dedicated funding isn't enough. On top of that, specialists say, the region will have to procure $400 million or more annually over 10 years just to keep the system running at current capacity.

Either local taxpayers or the federal government will have to pay. The trouble, of course, is that everybody is struggling with widening budget deficits. Moreover, nobody likes to raise taxes, especially during a recession and especially in Virginia.

Local politicians are fond of saying that the federal government is obliged to do more for Metro because so many federal workers and tourists use it. Many in Congress will argue, however, that this is one of the nation's wealthiest regions and ought to pay its own way. Plus, the rest of the nation often views Washington with, well, distaste.

It will take a significant change in the political climate to make this happen. One place to start: Raise the federal gasoline tax.

Fix the Metro board. The 12-member board, which oversees the system, has been unwieldy from the start because of rivalries among the three jurisdictions. Some politicians use it to grandstand and serve parochial interests.

It's "an exceedingly dysfunctional board," which micromanages the system with too much political "horse-trading," said a senior official familiar with the board, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid hurting relations with it.

Although there has been improvement, some board members have rejected needed fare increases and insisted on keeping features that are lovely to have but cost too much. These have included sparsely used bus routes and multiple station entrances at late hours.

Support Catoe, with caveats. A welcome development this week has been the relative absence of criticism of Catoe. Although he must bear some responsibility for the crash, since it happened on his watch, he generally draws praise and support from politicians, agency officials and independent experts knowledgeable about Metro.

In more than two years in the job, Catoe has rightly shifted the system's focus from construction to maintenance. By many accounts, he's improved efficiency and strengthened the commitment to safety, such as by presiding over a drop in fatal bus accidents.

As long as he leads the system in those directions, the region should give him money and other support to ensure that Metro runs securely and effectively for decades to come.

LOCAL OUTRAGE

Tuesday afternoon, in its first meeting after the crash, the Metro board quickly went into closed-door session for nearly two hours and returned only for a brief announcement about setting up a fund to help victims. Although privacy is justified sometimes for the sake of candor, the board should have had at least an hour of open give-and-take about safety issues, given the public's intense interest.

Robert McCartney discusses local issues Friday at 8:51 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM) radio. E-mail him at robertmccartney@washpost.com.

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