For the first time in several years, top local officials are concerned that the Metro subway construction program will be slowed perhaps as early as 1982, because of inflation and uncertainty over the adequacy of U.S. funding.
Their concern is heightened by the fact that voters in the Virginia jurisdictions will have to approve the use of boards to raise local money for Metro at a time when the bond markets are charging record interest rates. This assumes the bonds can be sold.
Metro's construction program appears to be in solid shape for the next year or so, although it will doubtless proceed at a slower rate than the Metro board would like. The concern extends to construction beyond 1982 because of a number of complex issues, some financial and some political.
"I'm not discouraged," said Metro General Manager Richard S. Page. "I don't regard $275 million [the current federal funding level] as a slowdown . . . The real problem is 18 percent annual inflation, because it's chewing up this [Metro construction] program and it will chew up other programs and I don't think anybody knows what to do about it."
Thirty-three of Metro's 101 miles are in operation, and construction or final design work is under way on another 30. The remaining 38 miles are now scheduled to be completed by 1988.
The two lines that would be the completed last are at the heart of the political problem. Those lines run from the present Gallery Place station north through Washington to Greenbelt in Prince George's County, and south through Anacostia to Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.
Francis B. Francois, Prince George's County councilman and Metro board member, said yesterday that the county and the state of Maryland are concerned that Metro will run out of money without those lines being completed and that Prince George's in effect, will be left holding the bag.
Adding to that concern is the fact that Arlington County now has almost all of its subway lines in service and its political leadership, while paying lip service to completing Metro, appears to other governments to be less than solidly behind financing Metro for somebody else. Metro has existed for years on such agreements; there is substantial suburban money in the downtown Washington subway lines.
Douglas Schneider, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, was asked if he thinks the Arlington attitude is a factor in the Maryland fear.
"Yes," he said. "I do. But the big part of the Maryland concern is that the local Virginia share depends on referenda."
Metro's latest cost estimates show that it will take about $3.3 billion to complete the $7.7 billion system. Of that money, about $589,759 must come from local sources. In Maryland, the state government provides the local share.The District of Columbia can raise money in a number of ways without going to its voters. Alexandria can sell bonds by action of its City Council. Arlington and Fairfax counties must hold elections to sell those bonds.
The state of Virginia periodically has kicked in some construction money, and there is enough of that around to carry Virginia needs into 1982.
Metro can complete the 101-mile system within that $7.7 billion figure only if it uses a speeded-up construction schedule to beat inflation, Page told Congress this week. That would require heavy federal financing in the next two years -- $415.5 million and $606.5 million instead of the present $275 million -- plus heavy local matching funds.
Local governments are accustomed to selling tax-free bonds for 4-to-6 percent interest. Yesterday, in an extremely volatile bond market, the rate probably would have been about 9 percent, according to Bob Reeves of Ferris and Co. Inc. Over a 30-year period, Reeves said, a $100 million bond issue at 9 percent would cost $90 million more in debt service (interest) than the same issue at 6 percent, "assuming it could be sold," he said.
The congressional funding bill passed last December gives Metro enough federal money for the $7.7 billion system, but not for the $8 billion or $8.5 billion system that could result if inflation continues.
Assuming the federal government is unwilling in these times to heavily fund the front end of Metro's push to completion, the inevitable result would be a stretching out of the construction schedule, possibly beyond 1990, plus a total cost that would exceed identifiable federal funding.
Metro officials have been circulating a proposed contract among local governments that would guarantee payments for completion of the entire system. It was agreed yesterday that contract would not be signed.
Short-term agreements outlining the completion of short, specific sections of Metro appear to be more likely, according to several officials interviewed. "That seems possible and practical," said Joseph Alexander, of the Fairfax County and Metro boards. "Maryland and Virginia are in this together. We both stand to lose."
The last time there was such concern about Metro's future came in the last year of the Ford administration, when the federal government demanded a restudy of Metro's uncompleted lines in its planned 101-mile system.