The District and Maryland must pay their fair Metro share

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

HERE'S A QUESTION for Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty: Will you join Virginia in protecting Metro from crippling service cuts that could represent a downward tipping point for the economy of the entire Washington area?

That may sound like an overstatement, but it's not. Metro is facing the threat of service cuts -- shorter trains, much longer daytime and weekend waits, and other drastic curtailments, including to bus service -- whose effect would be to further sap an anemic transit system already losing ridership and facing the prospect of a long-term death spiral. If Metro has any hope of pulling out of its nosedive, it will be badly undermined by the $44 million in service cuts proposed for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Officials in Northern Virginia, which ponies up almost a quarter of the region's $574 million contribution for Metro, seem to understand this. Although no formal commitments have been made, there are signs they're prepared to find some extra cash that would avert some cuts. Those cuts, particularly to the Yellow Line, would turn quick and convenient trips to and from National Airport, Alexandria, Verizon Center and other popular destinations into slogs involving endless waits and multiple changes.

But officials in the District and Maryland, which together chip in the other three quarters of Metro's regional subsidy, are balking at coming up with funds. This is dangerous, because there is no formal mechanism to coordinate higher contributions from all three localities. If one jurisdiction stiffs the system, the funding formula dictates that the other two follow suit. The result: Metro's hole gets deeper, and the most vulnerable residents -- the poor, the sick, the aged -- get hurt most of all.

Metro's ridership contributes about 55 percent of the system's $1.4 billion operating budget, more than the ridership of virtually any other major transit system in the nation. That contribution is set to rise as a result of stiff fare increases. But fare hikes alone will not cover even half of the $190 million deficit that Metro faces in the coming fiscal year, which is largely the result of falling ridership and rising costs for health care, pensions, contract workers and service for people with disabilities. And if Metro's riders are bearing the burden by paying higher fares, it's unfair for the District and Maryland to freeze their contributions.

It's also dangerous. State and local governments nationwide have been forced to make painful cuts to services in recent years, but Metro is a service of a different sort: It's the region's vital strategic linchpin. If people can't get where they want to go with relative ease and affordability, the basic functioning of the region itself will falter, along with its prospects for prosperity. Metro is the priority on which other priorities depend. Given that basic truth, it shouldn't be so hard for the District, Maryland and Virginia to find an extra $50 million or so among them, which is what it would take to maintain an essential regional resource.


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