No good excuse for what Md. is doing to Metro transit system

The Post's Robert McCartney discusses his column on the battle between Maryland and the Metro system over funds owed by the state.
By Robert McCartney
Thursday, May 6, 2010

With all its other woes, Metro hardly needed this one. Maryland has unexpectedly become a deadbeat about paying its share to support the transit system.

Annapolis has blamed a strapped budget for its unilateral decision to shortchange Metro by $28 million in capital funds that it promised this year. But the District and Virginia are also struggling, and they're paying Metro in full on time.

Maryland should find the money and cough it up, for two reasons. First, its action has aroused concern that the state has turned stingy when it comes to Metro. That could force the system to scale back its long-term investment plans. It would not be able to replace worn tracks, and buy new buses and rail cars in coming years, Metro officials warned.

Also, Maryland's withholding of money jeopardizes the fragile alliance in which it oversees Metro together with the District, Virginia and the federal government.

"To a very large degree, the question here is whether the historic partnership in the region that has made Metro possible and has made it successful for 34 years is going to be sustained," said Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County member of the Metro board.

Maryland is trying to make this mainly about Metro's own dysfunction, fiscal and otherwise.

"The bigger issue is better management of Metro, better oversight of Metro," Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) stressed to me in a phone interview Wednesday. "I don't think it's unreasonable that when my people are riding on it that we demand more openness and transparency of this screwed-up system."

It's great that O'Malley is insisting that Metro clean up its act, but where's he been for the past three years? Since his 2007 inauguration, he's been one of the top officials ultimately responsible for Metro's governance. He's complaining in part about money management issues that are long-standing. O'Malley's own representatives on the Metro board haven't said squat about them until now.

Plus, it still doesn't justify Maryland reneging on its commitment.

It's hard to overestimate the importance to the region. A robust, high-quality, expanding Metro system is at the center of almost everybody's vision of what the Washington area of the future ought to look like.

For instance, there's the recent "Region Forward" report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. It's basically the area's official growth strategy for the next 40 years. It urges making mass transit more available to reduce pollution and improve the quality of life.

The public also supports increasing investment in mass transit. A Washington Post poll of area residents reported last month that 62 percent of respondents said they would like government efforts to improve transportation to focus on adding public transit options. Only half as many, 30 percent, want the emphasis to be on expanding and building roads.

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