Crash Raises Political Questions Over Metro Funding

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 25, 2009; 12:29 PM

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."

At a meeting of the Metro board this morning, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said he met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to ask for emergency federal funding "to restore whatever is necessary in this system," including new rail cars to replace Metro's oldest series of cars which made up the train that rammed into another one in Monday's crash.

"I didn't walk away with a suitcase full of money," Catoe said. "but I did get a commitment that he will support us." Deputy transportation secretary John Porcari, formerly Maryland's transportation secretary, attended the meeting as well, Catoe said.

LaHood, in a statement this morning following the meeting with Catoe, said, "We will work with the Metro staff to find the money to address safety issues with the Metro system."

The spokesman would not elaborate on what specific role LaHood and the department would play.

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.

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