When the money is needed, Maryland will deliver for Metro

By Beverley Swaim-Staley
Sunday, May 2, 2010; C05

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) shares a similar challenge with other transportation agencies in the region; it needs money -- and lots of it -- to operate safely and make necessary improvements. Maryland has established a solid track record of providing its share of funding for WMATA, and that commitment continues. During the next five years, Maryland will provide more than $1.8 billion to operate and maintain WMATA because it is a priority for the state and the region. However, the reality is that other transportation priorities exist as well. To balance these priorities and leverage precious public resources, government agencies must operate efficiently, set realistic budget goals and stick to them.

As a result of this guiding principle, Maryland has determined that it will defer a portion of its capital funding for WMATA this year, a sum of $28 million, until the money is actually required rather than make an up-front payment to WMATA. The reason is simple. WMATA simply can't spend the capital dollars it already has. In this fiscal year, the agency is budgeted to spend $623 million on capital improvements under the Metro Matters part of its budget. As of April, with just three months left in the budget year, it had spent only 40 percent of that money. The reality is that WMATA won't be able to spend the remaining 60 percent.

This is not unusual for transit properties. Planning, design, engineering and other factors can experience unforeseen delays. But the fact remains, $375 million is in WMATA's bank account, just sitting. Given the impact of the economic downturn, Maryland cannot allow its funds to simply sit. We are using our existing taxpayer dollars to fund shovel-ready, job-creating projects. To divert money from those worthy projects to sit idle in a bank account would be a drag on the regional economy.

However, Maryland stands ready to deliver for WMATA when needed. The clear message to WMATA is to spend existing capital dollars first. Then, when new projects are ready to go, Maryland will prioritize its funding to address the additional need.

Maryland's commitment to WMATA cannot be questioned. In the fiscal year beginning July 1, Maryland will provide $331 million to fund the operating and maintenance needs of WMATA. This includes $50 million in "dedicated funding," Maryland's share of the local match to receive $150 million annually in new capital funding from Congress, and a 6.5 percent increase in the operating subsidy, consistent with the latest budget proposal put forth by interim general manager Richard Sarles. This subsidy increase provides $9 million to cover the growth of MetroAccess in Maryland and $5 million to reduce the need for service reductions elsewhere. A Post editorial last week suggesting that Maryland should dig even deeper ignores the employee layoffs, salary reductions, service cuts and the deferral of needed transportation projects that the state has had to shoulder over the past 18 months as its revenues declined. In fact, during this period, the budget allocation to every single transportation agency funded by Maryland has been dramatically cut, except WMATA.

Now more than ever, as WMATA faces formidable challenges, it is imperative that the organization be held accountable for its actions. This is true for how it deals with financial issues just as it is for how the agency handles safety issues. Without question, Maryland is a full partner in funding transit in the Washington region. But in return for that commitment, WMATA must be transparent and efficient when it comes to investing the hard-earned dollars of taxpayers. Writing blank checks won't solve WMATA's problems. Holding the agency accountable and demanding responsible action will form the solid foundation on which ultimate success will rest.

The writer is Maryland's secretary of transportation.

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