Metro woes may put federal funding for transit projects at risk

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

The deterioration of Washington's Metro system could jeopardize federal funding for new transit projects in the area, including a Purple Line light-rail system in Maryland and streetcar networks in Arlington County and the District.

In awarding highly competitive funding for new projects, the Federal Transit Administration considers applicants' ability to maintain their current transit systems. Because governments in Maryland, the District and Northern Virginia are partially responsible for funding Metro, the FTA will weigh the safety and reliability of the Metro system before granting money for new transit lines, transportation planners said.

"The bottom line is, we'll have to solve the Metro problem in order to do new things," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

An FTA spokesman said it would be premature to say whether Metro's situation would affect a proposal's chances for federal money until transit planners submit a detailed application.

But it happened in 2008. Metro's long list of safety and infrastructure needs became a sticking point when the FTA initially balked at spending $900 million to help extend the subway to Tysons Corner. That was before Metro had several fatal accidents and safety lapses, which prompted the Obama administration to call for federal oversight of light-rail and subway systems nationwide.

"To the extent [Metro] was a problem with Dulles rail, it's going to be an even bigger challenge for other projects now," Kirby said.

Meanwhile, Metro is struggling to find ways to close historic gaps in its operating and capital budgets, including $11 billion in system repairs and upgrades that it has outlined for the next decade.

Some officials say they're also worried about whether Metro can absorb the transit-oriented development that Washington area land-use plans are based on. Those plans assume that focusing jobs, homes and entertainment around Metro stations will accommodate population growth, curb traffic and revitalize downtrodden areas.

"If the [Metro] rail line isn't healthy, the entire region suffers," said David F. Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member and chairman of the Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board. "You can do all these [transit] connections and transit-oriented development, but they all assume an adequately funded and well-managed and operated system."

An interconnected system

None of the Washington area's new transit projects will compete for federal construction money for at least one or two years. By then, officials said, they hope government coffers that have emptied during the recession will have begun to recover.

Still, some local transportation planners say the potential effects of expanding the area's transit network create another layer of urgency to solving Metro's problems, which a recent assessment said could take three years. Most transit construction projects seek at least 50 percent federal funding.

FTA spokesman Paul Griffo said he could not say how Metro's funding shortages might affect other projects' chances for federal approval. He said the FTA first needs "a clear understanding of who would sponsor the projects, who would be responsible for their ongoing operations and maintenance, and what state and local funding sources would cover the costs to build them -- and whether the same sources would fund" Metro.

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