'America's Subway'

Monday, June 29, 2009

THE CAUSE of last week's deadly crash of two Metro trains has yet to be determined. But that is no reason for Congress not to act immediately to correct the chronic, and potentially dangerous, under-funding of Washington's subway system. Critical investments in the infrastructure and maintenance of Metro are overdue, and the tragedy should be a call to action for Congress to finally come up with the needed federal dollars.

It will be months before the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation into the rush-hour accident on the Red Line that killed nine people and injured 80 others. What is clear, as Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) pointed out in the crash's aftermath, is that Metro, now in its 34th year, is "stretched" and "strained" and needs help. Mr. Cardin was speaking out in support of an effort to get a 2010 budget appropriation of $150 million for Metro.

The money would be the first down payment on Congress's promise to provide $1.5 billion in dedicated federal funding over 10 years, matched by payments from Maryland, Virginia and the District. Last year, Congress gave overwhelming approval to the plan -- and the three jurisdictions have done their part -- but the money needs to be appropriated as part of the budget process. Unfortunately, President Obama didn't include the money in his spending proposal, and that creates obstacles.

Members of the region's Senate and House delegation wrote last week to the heads of the House and Senate committees that are working on transportation appropriations, urging that immediate attention be paid to Metro's needs. Metro is the only city rail system without a dedicated funding source and, as a result, has had to defer maintenance and system improvements even as ridership steadily grew. Consider, for instance, that Metro has long wanted to replace the outmoded cars involved in last Monday's accident but lacked the money for speedy replacements. Metro estimates that it will need some $10 billion over the next 10 years to replace aging equipment and maintain services, a sum twice the size of current capital spending.

The worst crash in Metro's history highlighted its vulnerabilities. It also showcased Metro's importance. The subway is a vital link in the region's transportation system, as witnessed by the clogged roads and inconvenienced commuters when part of it was shut down. It is a resource for the nation, ferrying federal workers to their jobs and enabling tourists to enjoy their capital city. We heard a lot of platitudes last week, including statements from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, about the importance of Metro as "America's subway." It's time the government put its money where its mouth is.

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