Revitalizing Metro, not grandstanding, is a fitting tribute to crash victims

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, June 24, 2010

A year after the deadly Red Line crash shocked the region and supposedly made fixing Metro a top priority, the Washington area is about to break what White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously called the No. 1 rule: "Never allow a crisis to go to waste."

The calamity should have been a catalyst for the region, collectively, to develop an ambitious plan to rebuild and revitalize Metro. The objective: Bring back the safe, clean, efficient transit system that made it the nation's envy when it opened in the 1970s.

There have been some steps to repair damage that's been accumulating for years. But there's no sign of a decisive effort sufficient to restore the quality.

A big part of the problem is that the region's top politicians still view Metro as an afterthought or a way to grandstand for partisan purposes. The latest sign of that, and it's a whopper, is the extraordinary threat by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) to renege on Richmond's initial $12.5 million contribution to a long-sought, dedicated funding program for Metro.

On the bright side, it's not too late to realize the vision. Such a project would have two main goals at the start.

First, decisively transform Metro's organizational culture so its staff of 10,000 consistently puts safety first. At least everybody's saying the right things about that. At the emotional ceremony Tuesday remembering the nine killed just outside the Fort Totten Station in Northeast Washington, speaker after speaker promised that Metro would honor the victims by ensuring that safety practices improve so such a disaster never occurs again.

It's too early to say whether the system will fulfill those solemn pledges. It's also too early to say whether the Metro board -- pretty much the same one that let the safety culture deteriorate in the first place -- can provide proper oversight on this issue. An overdue initiative to fix Metro's unwieldy governance structure hasn't attracted high-level involvement.

The second goal is to figure out how to raise the gobs of money necessary to modernize and upgrade the system. Metro faces a dangerous combination of steadily growing ridership and equipment approaching its 40th birthday. The region's political leadership needs to be realistic about the need for taxes of some sort to raise some of the billions of extra funds needed in coming years if Metro is to do better than just muddle through.

That's partly why McDonnell's recent gambit is so discouraging. He's endangering a federal-local project set to supply $300 million a year over 10 years so Metro can buy rail cars and make other investments.

McDonnell said he'll withhold the payment, due July 1, unless the Richmond state government gets two of Virginia's four seats on Metro's 16-seat board of directors. Since Metro was founded, all four of Virginia's seats have been held by Northern Virginia jurisdictions.

The governor argues that the state deserves such representation because Richmond is supplying more funds for Metro than in the past. That's a legitimate argument. If the state is forking over substantial money for Metro, then it should have at least one seat on the board.

But it's wildly irresponsible for McDonnell to hold hostage money needed for a vital regionwide Metro funding plan because of what is essentially an internal Virginia political squabble. (McDonnell is a Republican. The Northern Virginia jurisdictions are mostly Democratic.)

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