Governance dispute is more trouble for Metro

Friday, June 18, 2010

WHEN CONGRESS agreed last year to provide $1.5 billion over 10 years in new capital funding for Metro -- a critical infusion of cash for a transit system starved of it -- the money came with some strings attached. One was that the money would be matched annually by contributions from the District, Maryland and Virginia. Another was that Metro's governing board of directors would be expanded to include a federal vote. That seemed reasonable and logical: If Metro wanted federal funds, it would have to accept federal input.

Now Virginia officials, who contribute almost $90 million annually to Metro in capital and operating funds, are making an identical demand for a seat at the table and threatening to withhold contributions if they don't get one. Their demand is justified. The threat to withhold funding is not; it's blackmail.

This is not a dispute between Virginia and Metro, or even between Virginia and the other two Metro jurisdictions, Maryland and the District. This is a dispute between Virginia and Northern Virginia. And resolving it would not require redrawing the rules governing Metro's board.

As things have stood for years, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a regional body representing Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria, has named two voting members to the Metro board to match the two voting members named by the District and the state of Maryland. (Maryland's seats have for years been controlled not by suburban governing bodies but from Annapolis, which also provides the state's subsidy.) When Virginia was asked to pony up $50 million a year in funds to match the federal dollars, state officials started pressing the commission to allow them to name one of the two voting members (plus an alternate) for Virginia. The Northern Virginians declined.

The dispute began during the term of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and has apparently sharpened since his successor, Robert M. McDonnell (R), took office this year. State officials point out that they are chipping in about 52 percent of all Virginia dollars going to Metro; the remaining 48 percent comes from Northern Virginia localities. State officials are also right that the Metro board would be well served by having Virginia represented by a full-time transportation expert, not part-time politicians, no matter how conscientious and well-intentioned.

Possibly, partisanship is exacerbating the fight -- Northern Virginia is controlled by Democrats, Richmond by Republicans. But Metro is not a political trophy to be squabbled over; it's one of the busiest and most critical transportation systems in the nation. Northern Virginia needs to recognize the state's legitimate interest and contribution, back down and allow Richmond a vote on the Metro board. Richmond should negotiate without holding the system hostage. This internecine skirmish must not be allowed to jeopardize funding for transit in the nation's capital.

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