Fixing Metro's funding is key to a better system

By Jim Graham
Sunday, June 6, 2010

The May 23 editorial "Charity on wheels" referred to "Metro's balkanized governance" as an underlying problem in meeting its budget challenges.

It should not be all that surprising that Metro's board members, who come from the District, Maryland and Virginia, occasionally disagree -- we are different people who represent jurisdictions with sometimes different priorities, different populations and different styles of development. Yet we have worked successfully over the years to find common regional ground. With that said, however, I welcome the efforts to review Metro's board structure.

But keep in mind that Metro's operations budget now comes largely from our local governments. D.C. taxpayers will send $362 million to Metro in the next fiscal year. Board members who are also locally elected officials can and do produce increased Metro funding, as reflected in the past two budgets. Without additional local subsidies in 2009 and 2010, Metro services would have been sharply reduced.

Changing how the board is appointed, or how the balance of power is synchronized, might have very adverse consequences unless reform of Metro governance is accompanied by significant, regional revenue dedicated exclusively to transit operations. This is the real nut that needs to be cracked. I have taken the initiative to identify dedicated transit operating funding, just as I helped to lead the successful campaign to get dedicated transit capital funding. I recently introduced a bill to dedicate a 10-cents-per-gallon D.C. gas tax to Metro operations. A regional payroll tax, dedicated bridge and highway tolls or other commuter tax options could also be considered. But without some form of operational funding base, board members with the power to shape local funding decisions are essential.

That said, the editorial was also wrong to place so much blame on bus subsidies and bus riders for Metro's fiscal woes. The economic nose dive, the drop-off in riders -- mainly on buses -- and the tragic train crash on June 22, 2009, are the real causes of Metro's budget gap. For the top 50 transit agencies in the United States, bus fares pay only 27.6 percent of the operating costs. With the board's recent action on fare increases, Metrobus fares will cover about 26 percent of operating costs.

Moreover, higher Metrobus fares might not mean higher revenue. Indeed, Metrobus revenue in the District could fall further because of the ever-widening gap between Metro's $1.70 cash bus fare ($1.50 with SmarTrip) and the flat $1 fare on the D.C. Circulator. Improved service that attracts new riders and requires less subsidies -- such as express bus routes on 16th Street and Georgia Avenue and the Adams Morgan/McPherson Square Circulator route for which I helped provide funding -- is a better path to a sustainable public transit system.

In the end, our public transit system must provide affordable access to jobs and basic services. Consider that one in five bus riders does not own a vehicle, compared with only one in 50 rail riders, and you can see that Metrobus service is critically important in this region.

Jim Graham chairs the D.C. Council Committee on Public Works and Transportation and is a voting member of the WMATA Board.

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