Va. governor's threat puts Metro funding at risk, federal transit official says

By Lisa Rein and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 18, 2010

The chief of the Federal Transit Administration said Thursday that a $1.5 billion federal funding plan for Metro will be in jeopardy if Virginia carries through on a threat to withhold its share.

FTA Administrator Peter M. Rogoff also questioned whether Virginia is in compliance with the law passed by Congress to dedicate money to fix the region's troubled transit system -- because the state apparently never made a formal pledge to provide its share of matching funds.

"Obviously, we will not be in a position to commit federal matching funds to [Metro] if the size and certainty of the local funding commitments are in doubt," Rogoff wrote in a letter late Thursday to Metro's interim general manager, Richard Sarles.

Federal officials sounded the alarm a day after Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's administration threatened to renege on a pledge -- also made by the District and Maryland -- to match the federal money unless the state gets two members on Metro's board of directors.

McDonnell (R) wants to appoint two of the four seats now held by elected officials from Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria. His transportation secretary said that Virginia wants more accountability from Metro in the aftermath of last year's fatal Red Line crash and noted that the state contributes more to Metro than the Northern Virginia governments.

The threat threw into question a capital program long sought by the cash-strapped transit agency, which must use the money -- $300 million a year -- for safety improvements. The first $12.5 million of Virginia's $50 million share is due July 1, and state officials said this week that they would not pay without an agreement on state board seats.

The political rhetoric escalated Thursday, with Virginia's Republican leaders defending McDonnell, and Democrats assailing what they called a political power play. All members of the Metro board are Democrats.

Rogoff said he is "deeply troubled" by reports that Virginia "may be revisiting its commitment" to pay its share.

Metro officials have said McDonnell's hardball play jeopardizes an $886 million contract for 428 new rail cars that the federal money would pay for.

"Anything that prevents us from replacing our oldest rail cars is of major concern to everyone at Metro," said the board's chairman Peter Benjamin, who represents Maryland. "Virginia is preventing this program from moving forward."

Under the law, the federal government will give Metro the money during the next 10 years, but the District, Maryland and Virginia are required to match it with a dedicated fund that cannot be used for other spending.

On Wednesday, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said the state appropriated the money for this year's share and included the funds in the state's two-year budget.

In his letter, Rogoff "calls into question" whether Virginia is in compliance with the law. But on Thursday night, Connaughton said the General Assembly passed a bill in 2007 that set aside $600 million for transit, effectively creating a stream to match the federal money. He also said the state's six-year plan allocates money for Metro.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) called it "budgetary blackmail." Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said it was a "raw power grab by Richmond bureaucrats." But the author of the federal law, former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), said McDonnell is right to withhold Virginia's $50 million match until he gets what he wants.

"The mayor [of the District] has a vote" on the Metro board, Davis said. "Why shouldn't Virginia have the same?"

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