The sky really is falling at Metro

Workers at the Farragut North Station following a derailment in February.
Workers at the Farragut North Station following a derailment in February. (Nikki Kahn/washington Post)
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By Christopher Zimmerman
Sunday, May 9, 2010

You may now panic.

Given the recent drumbeat of news reports containing the words "Metro" and "crisis," people could be forgiven if they don't jump every time the alarm sounds. This, however, is the time to get scared. Our regional transit agency has been forced to consider a capital funding plan that would constitute a wholesale withdrawal of the region's commitment to the Metro system -- at exactly the moment it most needs an infusion of new money.

Amid all the controversy over the budget for the coming year -- How much will fares go up? Will service be cut? -- this really scary news could be missed entirely. It came on April 22, when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board was presented with a proposed capital improvement program for the next six years. This isn't about this year's budget or next year's budget. It's about the long-term needs of the system, the program that replaces rail cars and buses and upgrades equipment such as elevators and escalators, power supplies and computer systems. The things that take a long time to replace, and which, if neglected, cause the system to fail. The things that cause delays. And accidents.

The most serious problems menacing Metro are largely traceable to the chronic failure to adequately fund these infrastructure needs over many years. The WMATA staff has shown that $11.4 billion is required over the next decade for the system to function properly. Until last month, it was assumed that existing commitments from the region would cover some $5 billion. Some help would come from the new federal appropriation (with state match), bringing another $3 billion. So, WMATA faced a $3 billion shortfall.

But on April 22, we learned the problem was much worse. The capital plan presented by interim general manager Richard Sarles anticipated a termination of the existing interjurisdictional plan -- a reduction in the commitment from the District, Maryland and the Northern Virginia localities. Instead of Metro getting $3 billion in new money, it seemed the additional funding would simply displace money from the region. Maryland's statement last week that it will commit to its share of the full $5 billion offers hope that we may be moving back on track. Still, until there's agreement, no one should assume that the money will be there. All the partners still have to follow through.

Major components of the 35-year-old system are reaching the end of their useful lives, even as demand continues to rise. The National Transportation Safety Board will soon report on last June's collision -- and surely present a new set of safety expenditures not currently budgeted. Yet WMATA may well be compelled to defer and delay the very investments needed to maintain the system.

If Metro is going to perform at the level expected by the people of this region -- from commuters to congressmen -- it must receive a massive infusion of infrastructure investment. This does not mean a one-time fix but a permanent increase in the annual flow of funding. The only way to achieve this is for all parties to step up their efforts. That means each "compact member" state and locality, and it means the federal government. We need a new partnership across all levels of government with a stake in the success of the national capital region.

I see three components to such a partnership:

1. Instead of reducing their commitments, the Metro jurisdictions must sign a successor to the "Metro Matters" capital spending plan that at least maintains funding levels.

2. The federal government (which as of this year has voting representation on the WMATA board) must begin to make annual formula payments to the system -- just like Maryland, the District and the Northern Virginia governments, which currently provide all the annual operating subsidy (nearly $600 million and growing).

3. A dedicated regional tax should be instituted to provide more reliable funding and to supplement annual appropriations from the governments.

Only with such a substantial funding commitment can we secure the future of Metro -- and that of the region that depends on it. Metro has some real problems, but it is still the nation's premier transit system, inspiring awe and admiration in visitors from around the world. Metro is not falling apart -- yet. It will not be possible to say that for much longer, though, unless there is a substantial new commitment from all stakeholders.

The writer is a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board and vice chairman of the Arlington County Board.

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