Metro close to getting $150 million in federal funds

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Within days, President Obama is expected to approve an appropriations bill that includes the first $150 million installment of dedicated federal funding for the region's troubled transit system.

Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia have pledged to provide Metro $150 million in matching funds by mid-2010, transportation officials said Tuesday.

Priorities for the $300 million will include safety upgrades identified by the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into causes of the June 22 Red Line crash, which killed nine people, as well as capital improvements, such as replacing rail cars that are 30 years old, officials said.

Once the appropriations bill is signed, "we are ready to pay up," said Metro board Chairman Jim Graham, a D.C. council member, of the District's contribution.

Maryland has budgeted $50 million in matching funds beginning in July 2010 as part of the Department of Transportation's capital program, which could be accelerated, officials said. "We will make the money available as soon as Metro receives the federal funds," said a Maryland official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. "We would be moving to match it right away."

Virginia also intends to make its $50 million contribution a priority, said Metro board member Chris Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board.

Virginia's share will come from transportation capital projects revenue bonds already in the six-year plan for 2011 to 2015, said Steve Pittard, chief financial officer for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

In July, Virginia plans to issue about $500 million of the bonds, which are backed with a dedicated portion of the tax on motor vehicle insurance premiums, Pittard said.

The Senate on Sunday passed the fiscal 2010 appropriations conference report, sending the president a bill including the first $150 million of a $1.5 billion, 10-year funding plan for Metro that Congress passed last year. Appropriations require yearly action by Congress. The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to take a few months to provide the federal funds to Metro, said Rachel MacKnight, a spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md).

The legislation requires Metro to invest the funds in safety improvements. The funding represents only a small fraction of the estimated $11 billion in capital needs identified by Metro for the next decade, including upgrading rail segments and bus garages as well as computer systems.

Graham said the biggest factor in determining how the $300 million will be spent is the awaited NTSB report.

"That is going to be the great wild card. We have no idea what we will have to do," he said. "The highest priority has to be responding to the NTSB, because there will be a huge outcry for action once they issue the report."

The NTSB plans to hold a public hearing on the crash Feb. 23 and 24. It is separate from the final hearing, when the board will issue its report on the accident's cause. An investigation into the cause of an accident often takes about a year.

"New rail cars are very high on that safety-related list," including cars damaged in June's crash and a November rail yard crash, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

The soonest Metro could draw down the funds would probably be in February, Farbstein said, and the agency would be required to have the local funds to match the federal money once it begins doing that.

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