Metro's ambitious plan to spend $12.2 billion over the next 10 years -- a strategy that called for eight-car trains and a spider's web of new trolleys and rapid bus service as well as renewal of aging escalators and other equipment -- is in jeopardy as strapped local governments say they cannot afford their share of the bill.
Across Virginia, Maryland and the District, officials staring at budget shortfalls are saying the regional transit system's capital program is well beyond their means. Metro receives money from local and federal governments for its capital projects but needs local leaders to commit their portion to get federal dollars.
Metro directors are supposed to vote Thursday on whether to approve the plan. Sources familiar with the decision-making process say the board will not endorse the plan. Metro directors have several options: They can adopt a part of it, or direct staff members to revise it or come up with new funding strategies.
"All the jurisdictions are considering their positions in light of current economic realities," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the District on the Metro board. "People are hesitating, some for political reasons, some for economic reasons. Virginia is hesitating because of the results of the referendum, and in Maryland, there's a new guy headed for the governor's chair. You put all that together, and is this the time for a $12 billion commitment?"
No, Fairfax County officials said yesterday. "We basically don't have the money," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who sits on the Metro board. Fairfax County can commit to fund its share of the capital plan only through 2004, a total of about $48 million from local bonds and money authorized by the General Assembly.
The defeat of the regional tax increase for transportation projects left Fairfax and its neighbors without a new source of revenue for transit projects. And supervisors said their traditional strategy of floating bonds to pay their share of Metro's capital program is unrealistic because the county needs millions of dollars to build and renovate schools, and borrowing for both needs would exceed its debt limit.
District officials say their estimated share of the bill -- $3.8 billion -- would exceed the average amount they spend each year for all other capital programs combined. "This is a really bad budget year," said Dan Tangherlini, director of the District's transportation department.
Maryland officials say they can't commit, either. "It is a good vision, but these are difficult times," said Andrew J. Scott of the Maryland Transit Administration.
Metro's capital plan is designed to position the transit system a few steps ahead of the growth curve by 2013, instead of lagging behind with crowded rail cars and buses. The $12.2 billion plan is divided into three parts. The first calls for $3.3 billion to maintain the system by replacing and rehabilitating aging buses, rail cars, elevators, escalators, mechanical systems, maintenance facilities, tracks, stations and parking garages.
The second part is $2.9 billion to handle crowding and calls for the purchase of 252 rail cars, 460 buses, expanded rail yards and bus garages and improvements to cramped stations such as new entrances, extended platforms and underground walkways between Gallery Place and Metro Center and between Farragut West and Farragut North.
The last part is $6 billion for new service, consisting of 114 miles of mostly trolley and rapid bus lines. Projects include rail in the Dulles corridor, trolleys on Columbia Pike in Arlington, trolleys between the Anacostia waterfront and Minnesota Avenue in the District, and the Purple Line light rail between Bethesda and New Carrollton.
Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann said it appears the agency will be able to execute only the first part -- maintaining the existing system. To date, governments have committed to pay about $2 billion of the $12.2 billion plan. "I don't think it means Metro is doomed," said William Euille (D), who represents Alexandria on the Metro board. "The negative effect is we're going to have to deal with congestion . . . fewer trains, fewer [rail] cars. We lack the ability to expand the system further with any new proposed stations, and it will probably also have an effect on routine maintenance."
In a letter drafted to Metro Chief Executive Officer Richard A. White yesterday, Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) suggests that Metro pursue "outside funding" to pay for its capital plan, especially federal dollars.
White has been making the case that Metro deserves special federal funds because nearly half the peak-hour riders are federal workers.
Fairfax officials also want Metro to consider raising rush-period fares and extending the boundaries of the rush, so that more riders pay higher fares.
Metro has not increased fares in seven years, and White has refused to rule one out in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Feldmann declined to say whether White will propose a fare increase but noted that fares pay for operating costs, not capital projects.
District officials don't want fares to rise. "We'd be real nervous about a fare increase because so many District riders are transit-dependent," Tangherlini said.
Some Fairfax supervisors, the most ardent among officials who supported the defeated transportation tax, said yesterday that voters should not be surprised by the effect on Metro projects. "Now we have to be real and say to our people, 'We don't have the money' for Metro," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield).
But Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), the lone board member to oppose a sales tax increase, wondered why his county was able to find money for its share of Metro funding before the referendum campaign and now could not. "Our support [of Metro] in the past was not contingent on the referendum," Frey said. The board, he said, was "blaming the voter" for rejecting a tax increase.