The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has called on the leaders of Virginia, Maryland and the District to come up with a dedicated source of funding for Metro to preserve the transit system and ease crowding.
In a letter to state and federal officials, the regional planning body urged the jurisdictions to set up a blue-ribbon panel to address the issue and said that "significant additional funding is essential to maintain the safety, security and quality of Metro."
Metro's managers and its board of directors have been warning for months that without more money -- an estimated $1.5 billion over the next six years -- crumbling infrastructure, crowding and spotty service will worsen. Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White has warned that the system is in a "death spiral" unless it gets more money.
"Everyone is tired of seeing the problem defined by multi-colored brochures," said David F. Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member and chairman of the Transportation Authority. "We know what the problem is -- let's get on to actually solving it this time."
The Transportation Authority was formed in 2002 in advance of a proposal on that year's ballot in Northern Virginia to raise sales taxes to pay for new road and rail projects in the region. Had the measure succeeded, the authority would have determined the order in which projects were funded. But since it failed, the authority has been left with little power beyond making planning suggestions.
Initial reactions to pleas from Metro and the authority have been lukewarm at best. Tony Bullock, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said that Williams wouldn't support dedicating an existing form of revenue for Metro or creating a new one for it.
"We use every piece of revenue pie that we already have," Bullock said. "Every piece is needed for current operations."
Bullock said that more money should come from the federal government, given that many Metro riders are federal workers. Metro's "capital program is so enormous in scope, it's not approachable without significant federal participation," Bullock said, adding that the mayor would be open to a regional panel to explore solutions.
A possible injection of federal money is tied up in a disagreement between Congress and the White House over the size of the pending reauthorization of a transportation bill.
Robert L. Flanagan, Maryland's transportation secretary, said that any solution for his state would have to address how it funds a transit system in Baltimore. He said that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has ruled out higher sales, income and gas taxes and that the issue requires more study.
"We feel that there is a great need to look at new alternatives," Flanagan said. "We want to study what to do about those concerns."
Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said that Metro funding is just one of many transportation needs the state doesn't have the money for.
"There aren't enough slices to go around right now," she said, adding that the state is "moving to a maintenance-only transportation budget in the near future."
Among other things, the 27-year-old transit system needs more money for maintenance, to purchase more than 100 rail cars to run eight-car trains and prevent the packed conditions that exist on most lines, and to buy nearly 200 buses to lessen crowding there, as well.
Metro fares and parking fees recently were raised for the second year in a row, angering passengers who said they were unwilling to pay more for declining service. Even so, some Metro officials have warned that another fare increase is possible next year unless more money appears.
An independent study by the Brookings Institution found that Metro is the only major transit system in the country without significant dedicated funding. Unlike other systems that can count on a portion of gas, sales or other taxes, Metro officials return to local leaders each year with their hands out.
That leaves Metro at the political and economic whims of the governments and complicates its efforts to purchase needed equipment and undertake long-range planning.
The report said that Virginia officials expect money available for transportation projects to drop by $100 million over the next five years. In Maryland, the Ehrlich administration has shifted $300 million from the transportation trust fund to balance the state budget the past two years.
The only dedicated funding that the system receives is from a 2 percent gas tax levied in Northern Virginia on gasoline wholesalers and retailers. That covers 1.6 percent of Metro's costs.
Aside from new taxes, the Brookings report suggested special assessments on land near Metro stations and levying fees on motorists who drive into a congested region or onto a crowded roadway during rush periods.