Washington area leaders need to tackle Metro's problems together

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, January 21, 2010; B01

Here's a challenge for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski: Now that you've helped drive off Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., how about helping to bring together the Washington region's political leaders to solve the problems that made it impossible for Catoe or anyone else to run the transit system effectively?

I single out Mikulski (D-Md.) because her denunciation of Metro's safety record last month was a landmark on the road to Catoe's departure. But all of the region's top political leaders -- especially the governors of Maryland and Virginia, the mayor of the District, and the local congressional delegation -- need to get more directly involved to overcome Metro's current crisis.

We need a concerted effort from them to address two chronic ailments that I described in a column last week, a day after Catoe resigned.

One is the need to raise more than $850 million a year in new funds over the next decade to keep Metro running in good order at roughly its current level of service. The most reliable method would be for each region to dedicate a small portion of its sales tax or gasoline tax to Metro.

If that's politically impossible, then the region should at least commit to providing the money so the new general manager can deal with safety and other operational issues without having to lobby for it.

The other pressing need is for changes in Metro's outdated governance structure to make it more professional, rider-oriented and responsive to the region as a whole. In particular, the regional compact that governs Metro should be amended to weaken the veto power that allows each jurisdiction to block fare increases or other moves even if they're clearly best for the entire area.

It's up to senior politicians to make this happen, because they control the purse and would ultimately be the ones to summon the political will to cede the authority of individual jurisdictions to serve the area's common well-being. Otherwise, we risk further deterioration of the transportation network vital to the region's ability to prosper economically without worsening traffic congestion and pollution.

Unfortunately, the region's top political leaders have tended to delegate the issues to lower-ranking politicians or officials on Metro's board of directors and to the general manager. That's politically convenient, because the senior officials are insulated from criticism when things go wrong. However, the system suffers, because the board doesn't have enough influence to raise money or engineer structural change.

"The dysfunction here is that the public tends to blame the Metro board [for problems], but the Metro board doesn't have control of its own budget. It's the jurisdictions," said Ben Ross, a Montgomery County transit activist and chairman of Transit First, a regionwide coalition of groups battling Metro service cuts.

The board structure, especially the jurisdictional veto, "makes it impossible for Metro management to stand up for the region's needs," Ross said.

Metro's travails are one of the most vivid examples of the price the region pays for its shortage of cooperation across borders. That happens partly because the Virginia and Maryland governors have typically come from outside the Washington suburbs. Maryland's Martin O'Malley (D) and Virginia's Robert F. McDonnell (R) both lived in the area when they were young, but O'Malley built his political career in Baltimore; McDonnell, in Virginia Beach.

The two state governments "seem to largely disregard this region, because it's at the edge of the states, and the power bases of the states are not here," said David Alpert, founder and editor of the urban planning and transportation blog Greater Greater Washington.

To their credit, the area's congressional delegations helped push through the new, $150 million-a-year program of federal funding for Metro, which will be matched by local jurisdictions. But that was long overdue, as Metro had been the only major transit system in the nation without a steady stream of money.

More importantly, that's only a start. The system needs an additional $8.5 billion over the next decade for investments in new rail cars, equipment and other capital spending. The local political leadership could cover about $5 billion of that by pledging to continue the Metro Matters spending program, which expires this year -- but it hasn't done so.

Even then, the system would be short $3.5 billion, plus it hasn't figured out how to cover its operating deficit, projected to widen to more than $170 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Coming up with that much money is "a tall order in a recession," said Craig Simpson, political and legislative representative for Amalgamated Transit Local 689. "But if we don't, then you will see the consequences: falling behind further in capital projects, and a downward spiral in operations."

One local transit group, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, has called for a regional summit to address Metro's problems. With or without a high-profile meeting, the region's leadership needs to play a bigger role.

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