As I have visited cities all over this country the last year and a half, I have seen partnerships between the public and private sectors providing transit services. And I have met with local communities eager to provide a bigger match to federal dollars in order to get transit projects built and operated more efficiently. I have seen a 10-year rail transit rehabilitation program in progress in metropolitan New York, 70 percent funded by local money. I learned that the most recent phase of rail-rapid transit construction in Atlanta is nearly 80 percent funded by local revenue.
So why can't we do the same thing here for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority? WMATA is an outstanding system, a credit to the community and an asset to the quality of life in the region. But the Bush administration does not think it is worthy of special funding as currently proposed in Congress.
This administration is not opposed to continued construction of Metro or against the use of federal funds for that construction. Metro General Manager Carmen Turner and her management team are doing a good job in providing an outstanding transportation system for the people of Washington, a system that has helped to reduce congestion in the area. I've used Metro myself on several occasions, and I carry a farecard in my wallet.
However, we feel that it is wasteful, unnecessary and unfair for Congress to create a special financial assistance program for WMATA. Such legislation would create a totally new federal program. It would require new federal expenditures of more than $2 billion to help construct the full 103-mile rapid rail transit system for the area.
The funds to build WMATA should not come from a new piece of special legislation; they should come from the same regular federal program that provides urban mass transportation construction funding throughout the country. WMATA should go through the same process everyone else does. This process is fair and equitable, but at the same time it will make sure that as we move forward with scarce dollars that all America participates.
The federal government's commitment to WMATA has been great. Since 1968, the federal government has funded nearly $13 billion worth of new transit systems, of which WMATA has received more than $7 billion, or 60 percent of the total, even if the remaining 13.5 miles are built without any federal funding.
It is fiscally irresponsible to authorize new funding in this time of federal deficits, especially when WMATA is already one of the largest recipients of federal funds. The Washington metropolitan area has received more bus and rail-related funds on a per-capita basis than any other urban area in the United States. No other transit system has received special authorizations, appropriations or federal bond payments.
Yes, it is important that the nation's capital have a first-rate mass transit system. But so should New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, just to name a few. WMATA's claim to a special federal interest because of its location is not persuasive, because it is nevertheless a local transit system serving overwhelmingly local needs.
Today, local jurisdictions are using federal transportation assistance dollars as a secure base of funding for their programs. But they are also providing more locally generated dollars to reach all the transportation goals they believe are important. In urban mass transit, many cities have changed the ratio of local-to-federal spending. A bus/subway system in Seattle has 50 percent local funding. A regional rail transit construction program in the San Francisco Bay area has 70 percent local funding. A new rail transit network in Los Angeles has 59 percent local funding.
These examples are the new norm, not the exception. In recognition of limited federal resources, many cities have increased their local matching share to 50 percent or more. However, this legislation would unjustifiably require WMATA, which includes among its members four of the wealthiest counties in the nation, to invest only 20 percent.
Instead of providing the metropolitan area with more flexibility and responsibility by asking for a greater local share, some in Congress seek to guarantee Washington all the federal money it needs, and that is just dead wrong. Those who benefit most from this outstanding transit system should pay a larger share of its construction cost. That is a basic question of fairness that other cities have already answered.
Samuel K. Skinner
is U.S. secretary of transportation.