Two local members of Congress are preparing legislation to reshape Metro’s governing structure by forcing the District, Virginia and Maryland to rewrite the transit agency’s 50-year-old compact.
The separate initiatives by Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and John Delaney (D-Md.) reflect a growing sentiment in the Washington region that Metro’s problems can be fixed only with fundamental reforms in how the three jurisdictions oversee, manage and fund the agency.
Proposed changes could include banning elected officials from the Metro board, weakening union protections, strengthening oversight and providing reliable funding.
“We can’t have the standing operating procedure anymore, and we need to have something rather big,” Comstock said.
Comstock is in a uniquely influential position on Metro affairs, both as a member of the House Transportation Committee and as the only Republican from the immediate Washington area in the GOP-controlled Congress.
But the legal and political obstacles are formidable.
Amending the compact — which dictates how Metro is governed and financed — requires the three jurisdictions to agree among themselves and then obtain Congress’s approval.
Comstock’s bill would establish mandatory criteria for a new compact, effectively giving the three jurisdictions an ultimatum to overhaul Metro.
Many of the proposed reforms are controversial and have been debated for years without result. Changes that satisfy the
Republican-controlled Virginia General Assembly could alienate the Democratic-dominated Maryland legislature and D.C. Council.
A split has already emerged in the region over the question of whether the reforms should include a change in labor policy championed by Republicans and area business leaders.
Comstock’s bill would end the requirement that labor disputes be settled by an outside arbitrator. She said that would help slow the rise in what she views as Metro’s excessive labor costs.
But Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) and Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), along with Metro’s largest union, want to keep binding arbitration. Without it, they warned, the union would be released from its no-strike pledge.
“It’s a recipe for potential trouble, big trouble, down the road,” Connolly said.
Delaney said he wasn’t sure what position, if any, his bill would take on labor issues. Other area Democrats, in both the House and Senate, also declined to take a firm position for or against binding arbitration.
The topic is so sensitive that Lawrence Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, recently charged that Comstock’s criticisms of Metro workers’ pay had a “racist” overtone. He faulted her for saying that members of ATU Local 689, Metro’s principal union, most of whom are African American, earned too much compared with her constituents in Northern Virginia.
Comstock dismissed Hanley’s comments as “partisan politics.” She said her views on Metro were widely shared, including by two black Democrats: former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams and former Metro board member James W. Dyke Jr., both of whom are now active in business efforts to reform Metro.
Comstock and Delaney also are divided about how fast to seek more money for Metro. Delaney’s bill would provide that the three jurisdictions and the federal government all increase funding for the system as part of revising the compact. Comstock wants to wait until the improvements in governance are made.
“You have to have the reforms first,” she said.
Both Comstock and Delaney are in the process of drafting their bills, which could be ready within weeks.
Both bills will set tighter, professional standards for Metro board members, who are appointed by the three jurisdictions and the federal government. One result could be a ban on board members who are also elected officials, who struggle with dual loyalties to their constituencies and to Metro’s overall interest.
“These can’t be political people anymore,” Delaney said. He wants the board members to be experts with a background in finance, management or transit.
The bills will also seek other changes to make the board more effective. Comstock is considering strengthening oversight by adding an independent inspector general and whistleblower protections.
Both bills would press the District, Virginia and Maryland to renegotiate the compact by using the threat that Congress would withdraw its approval of the existing compact.
That process could include setting a deadline of one or two years for the three jurisdictions to agree on a new compact or risk Congress appointing a control board to take over the transit system.
That is the approach favored by the Federal City Council, a District-based business and civic group that has been working with Comstock on her bill.
“We want to have incentives for the parties to come together with a new compact, but then you also want to have a deadline,” Comstock said.
Delaney favors what he called a “prepackaged reorganization,” in which Congress would withdraw its support for the existing compact but immediately approve a new one — provided the three jurisdictions agree to the new terms.
“Lay out a date in the future where we pull out,” Delaney said. “Before the ink’s dry on pulling out, we’ll sign a new one.”
Interest in rewriting the compact has been building for the past two years as Metro has seemed incapable of solving chronic problems with safety, reliability and inadequate funding.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans has led the chorus of critics, partly because of his frustrations at getting the 16-member board and area jurisdictions to act with sufficient urgency to raise funds for the agency.
Evans (D), who also represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Council, said he thinks Congress should withdraw its support for the compact immediately — because, otherwise, the three jurisdictions will not feel sufficient pressure to reform it.
Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly have submitted a resolution and a bill urging changes in the compact.
The Federal City Council, led by Williams, has attracted support from a long list of area business chief executives for its proposal to use federal legislation to force the three jurisdictions to rewrite the compact.
The group is in talks with another premier business group, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, about adopting a unified business position on rewriting the document.
Although Comstock said that Democrats such as Evans and Williams back her position, she did not say she necessarily had to win support of Democrats from the local congressional delegation for her bill. Instead, she said she was looking to win a majority in the House, which she can achieve relying exclusively on GOP votes.
“What I’m looking at is something that can get 218 votes and get through and fix Metro,” she said.
A few things are working in her favor.
She skated to reelection in a competitive district anchored by Loudoun County, her party has control of the House and the Senate and is about to take over the White House, and her friend Elaine L. Chao is poised to become transportation secretary.
A Metro bill would probably have to pass through several committees, including Transportation as well as Judiciary, where Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is the powerful chairman.
But area Democrats warned that she would need support from the rest of the local delegation to get the 60 votes effectively needed in the Senate to win passage.
“If we were united against her, she’s going to have a tough time,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said.