U.S. funds for Metro come slowly. So do system's changes.

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Some time ago, I remember reading that Congress had authorized $150 million to fund Metro over a 10-year period. This was contingent on Maryland, Virginia and the District each agreeing to provide funding as well. I haven't heard anything about this recently, even as Metro has continued to have financial problems. Has the federal money ever been appropriated?

-- Norman Plummer, Easton, Md.

Our letter writer has a good memory on the authorization. He read about that last year. But congressional funding, as he noted, is a two-stage rocket. We're still waiting for ignition on the appropriation stage.

The House has approved spending the $150 million, and the Senate is likely to follow as early as this week before sending the measure to the White House. Virginia, Maryland and the District are committed to putting up a matching amount. If the plan comes together as envisioned, Metro would be sure of having $300 million a year for the next decade, something commonly referred to by transit advocates as "dedicated funding."

Unfortunately for Metro's leaders, a lot happened in the transit system in the year between authorization and appropriation, and very little of it was good for Metro. As a result, Metro is working itself into a big problem with its benefactors.

Some of the badness had to do with the main reason Metro is so eager to get the money: The system is getting older, and the parts are breaking down. That very likely played a big role in the Red Line crash on June 22, and it also shows up in countless everyday ways, including the lengthy repair period this fall for the escalators at Dupont Circle.

But aging equipment isn't the only source of Metro's grief. The transit authority management has failed to distinguish itself in responding to many problems. It took some appropriate safety steps after the crash. But behind the scenes, it was blocking a regional oversight panel's safety inspectors.

Metro also continued to have communication problems, something that can't be blamed on aging equipment. The disruptions on the Red Line after the crash were significant. Management's efforts to explain them and ease their impact were insufficient.

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