Montgomery County Executive James P. Gleason said yesterday he will continue to withhold millions of dollars in both operating and construction money for the Metro system until he wins a federal guarantee that a subway line will be built through Wheaton.
Gleason's stand, although repudiated yesterday by the County Council, deepens the regional Metro system's financial problems on the one hand and sets the stage for a county constitutional crisis on the other.
Metro General Manager Theodore Lutz said yesterday that Metro will simply be out of operating money within two or three weeks if the Montgomery County funds are not available. Other jurisdictions - notably Arlington - also are withholding money because Montgomery County is not in.
And on the subway construction side, Metro officials already have delayed by one week the awarding of one contract - for construction of the King Street Metro station in Alexandria - and will have to delay other contracts scheduled for next week if Gleason continues to be successful in blocking the construction money.
Gleason reaffirmed his position yesterday despite County Council actions.
In two votes, the Council told Gleason to forward $1.7 million in operating money to Metro and told the state of Maryland that it supports a $327 million, joint D.C.-Maryland subway construction program Gleason is blocking.
Gleason has refused to release the operating money, and has told the state of Maryland that he cannot assure his support for the subway contract until the Wheaton line is guaranteed by the federal government.
Nothing the Council did yesterday, Gleason said to a reporter, would change his stand.
Most of the construction money at issue is for a continuation of the Red Line that now terminates at Dupont Circle. Ultimately it will run north under Connecticut Avenue to Yuma Street, west on Yuma Street to Wisconsin Avenue, then north along Wisconsin Avenue and Rockville Pike in Montgomery County to Shady Greve. Contracts are scheduled in the next week for Metro stations at Nicholson Lane in Montgomery County, at Friendship Heights on the Montgomery County-District of Columbia border, and at Tenley Circle NW.
This, Gleason's complicated war with the federal government affects not only Montgomery citizens, but those of Virginia and the District of Columbia as well. Politicians from all of those injurisdictions question his tactics, not his goals.
What Gleason and members of the Montgomery County Council want is to continue the subway line from Silver Spring up Georgia Avenue through Forest Glen and Wheaton to a terminal in Glenmont.
It is one of the region's most densely populated corridors and one that was originally to be served by a giant interstate highway, cutting down along Georgia Avenue and into the District of Columbia.
The county and the District decided to build a subway there instead of a freeway. But with Metro's escalating construction costs, the money was gone before the line was built and more federal help is needed. The line is virtually completed as far north as Silver Spring and is scheduled to open in November.
The 4-mile extension to Glenmont is currently designed as a deep rock tunnel and is projected to cost about $275 million to $300 million - making it per mile the most expensive suburban segment in the planned 100-mile subway system.
Transportation Secretary Brook Adams, under pressures from the Office of Management and Budget and the White House itself to cut subway construction costs nationwide, ordered a study of alternative designs to the deep tunnel.
Adams' staff and Metro engineers have agreed to study five alternatives, including various methods of construction and route realignments. Adams also said in a letter to Metro that "no transation of the route is contemplated." Gleason had no problem with that.
But another paragraph of the same letter says that "the decision on whether or not the route is to be constructed depends upon the success . . . in achieving a design . . . that can be completed at costs significantly lower than currently estimated . . ."
Gleason sees that as a "no-build" alternative and a remeging of a federal commitment to construct that line. Adam's predecessor, William T. Coleman Jr., had encouraged the area to cut freeways from its plans and use the federal freeway money for subway building, as is intended. That money, mostly from gasoline taxes, cannot be used in other states. So Maryland and the District dropped the freeways and substituted the subway.
But if Adams were to exercise the "no-build" alternative, there would be neither subway nor freeway in a transportation-poor, overcrowded corridor. Furthermore, the new Silver Spring Metro station, in the heart of downtown Silver Spring, would become the end of the line, which it was never designed to be.
Gleason has asked Adams to commit himself in writing to federal funding of one of the five alternatives or some similar substite. Although Adams has publicly praised the Glenmont line, he also has refused to make an absolute commitment, citing the reeds of federal money for mass transit programs here and elsewhere.
Looking for a lever, any lever, Gleason first withheld Montgomery County's operating subsidy for the Metro bus and subway system for the first quarter of this fiscal year. The county share of $1.7 million was due July 1, and has not been paid.
Then, Adams released $327 million in money that was once ticketed for Maryland and D.C. freeways to be used primarily to continue construction of the Shady Grove subway line. The contract that actually lets the money flow must be signed by Adams, Maryland, the District, and Metro's Lutz. All have signed but the Maryland representative, State Transportation Secretary Hermann K. Intemann.
A week ago, Intemann wrote Gleason and County Council President John Menke asking "written assurances" from the county that "notwithstanding the current or future status of any other Metro route," an obvious reference to Glenmont. Montgomery County would take "all steps necessary to advance the construction" of the Shady Grove line.
Gleason responded that he was "prepared to withhold or delay any financial support" until he gets a guarantee from Adams.
The Council met Tuesday and sent Menke to meet with federal officials yesterday. He reported back that Gleason's understanding was correct: "no-build" was indeed an alternative. But the Council, in an hour's discussion, decided it should not jeopardize bus service and the Shady Grove line.
It ordered the release of the operating subsidy on a 6-to-0 vote (member Esther Gelman was out of the room). It then instructed Menke to write Intemann, giving him the assurances he wanted, again on a 6-to-0 vote with Menke abstaining.
Legally, the Council appropriates funds, but Gleasons' office spends them. If Gleason continues to refuse to forward the Metro subsidy, the Counil "would have to beat me in court" to get the money to Metro, Gleasoon said. Such a confrontation has never before happened in Montgomery County.
Intemann said through a spokesman that he would have no comment on the situation until he has read the Council's letter. If the Maryland official signs the contract, Gleason could still theoretically block the construction money because county matching funds flow through the Washington Suburban Transit Commission, and Gleason controls enough votes on that agency to stop the money there.