Metro Chief Begs Senate for More Money to Maintain Subway

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., testifying with other leaders of the nation's largest public transit systems, pleaded with a Senate subcommittee Tuesday for more money to maintain the aging infrastructure of the region's main rail network.

"If we do not receive sufficient funding now, service as well as safety will decline," said Catoe, who identified lack of money as Metro's primary problem.

A study released by the Federal Transit Administration in April found that the country's seven largest rail transit operators have about $50 billion in unmet capital needs. One-third of the assets at those seven agencies, which include Metro, were deemed to be in either marginal or poor condition.

Metro, the only major transit agency without a source of dedicated funding, says it needs more than $7 billion for capital projects over the next 10 years to offer safe and reliable service.

As the local governments that primarily fund the agency struggle with their budget problems, Metro has stepped up efforts to obtain money from the federal government.

The House has approved, and the full Senate is considering, a request that would give Metro $150 million in federal funding next fiscal year for capital requests. That, Catoe said, should be only "the first installment." The District, Maryland and Virginia have agreed to match that amount.

The three senators who attended the 75-minute hearing seemed largely receptive. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee, said the June 22 Red Line crash that killed nine and injured 80 was "the real wake-up call about the condition of our nation's transit equipment."

"One of the most important things we, the federal government, can do to honor the memories of those who died in this tragedy is to provide agencies the resources needed to keep this from happening again," he said.

Peter M. Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administration, said local agencies need to do a better job of targeting critical safety needs. He also said crowded platforms, disabled air conditioners and broken escalators will drive passengers away from public transportation if they are not addressed.

He said the way the federal government apportions money to transit networks, with seven tiers of funding, is too complicated and needs to be changed. But he said the administration will be careful not to reward systems that allowed their systems to fall into deep disrepair because of imprudent decisions.

In addition to Catoe, leaders of the transit authorities in Chicago, New Jersey and Atlanta testified.

Catoe used a question from Menendez about what lessons he has learned from the crash to sharpen his request for more money. He noted that the oldest Series 1000 train cars are less crashworthy than the newer cars, which he said "did not cause the accident but had an impact on the amount of damage that can be done." All six of the cars on the train that struck the one ahead of it were from the old series.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), though, expressed concern that the very systems requesting help put too much money into expanding their capacity in past years without doing the maintenance they say is so backlogged now.

"I know it's a mixed bag," he said. "If you don't grow, you can't finish your system."

Only six hours after he attended a celebratory news conference at the New Carrollton train station, at which Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) endorsed a light rail route for the Maryland Transit Administration's proposed Purple Line, Catoe said it's important to balance money for new projects with enough to take care of the old ones.

"There has to be this balance of safety in the system and the scheduled repair and also the moneys when necessary to expand capacity," he said. "All of that, too, relates to safety."

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