Marylanders narrowly support a regionwide sales tax to boost Metro funding, giving it the most support among several proposals to bolster the struggling transit agency, a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll finds.
The survey of Maryland residents offers a picture of local taxpayers’ preferences as leaders from the District, Maryland and Virginia ramp up their efforts to find consensus on a dedicated funding source for Metro — a move officials say is necessary to keep the transit agency financially solvent in coming years.
But there are mixed opinions on what that revenue source should be, as officials weigh the benefits and drawbacks of an increase in subsidies that the jurisdictions contribute to the agency, the launch of a Metro-dedicated sales tax, special tax districts near Metro stations or another method of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to the transit agency.
For residents in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, where appraisals of Metro have plummeted, a regional sales tax draws lukewarm support. But it is more popular than other options.
Metro funding will be a key focus of a group convened by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and headed by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood. The independent panel will study the system’s governance and long-term financial needs and will issue a report by fall with the goal of aiding Virginia and Maryland lawmakers as they head into their 2018 legislative sessions.
“Clearly, you’ve heard me say recently,  is going to be an issue. I cannot continue to cut service and raise fares, cut staff,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said, speaking about Metro’s operating budget for fiscal year 2019. “At some point, we have to really think about how we are going to have a stable source of funding for the system.”
Metro and many elected leaders say the agency needs a dedicated source of funding to pay for long-neglected maintenance, cover rising costs, make federally mandated safety improvements and recover revenue lost because of declining ridership. Wiedefeld says he has exhausted his options for internal belt-tightening and needs a new influx of money to keep the system afloat.
The Post-U-Md. poll posed questions on five proposals that would provide the agency with more funding, and the majority of Marylanders rejected four of them.
Sixty-six percent of all residents oppose cutting rail and bus frequency, while 56 percent do not want fare increases — two options that have already been adopted by the Metro board, which voted Thursday to finalize fare increases and service cuts that will start July 1.
Nearly two-thirds of Marylanders, 65 percent, oppose creating a new property tax on buildings and homes near Metro stations. Fifty-five percent reject a general increase in funding from the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. governments paid for by raising taxes or cutting other programs.
But by 51 percent to 42 percent, more Marylanders support than oppose creating a regional sales tax dedicated to Metro. Residents in the inner suburbs are more evenly split, with 50 percent favoring and 47 percent opposing a regional sales tax. The sales tax is supported by 55 percent in Montgomery compared with 44 percent in Prince George’s, although differences are within the poll’s margin of sampling error.
William Moreno, 54, is open to the idea of a regional sales tax. A registered Republican living in Silver Spring, Moreno said he has been increasingly dismayed at the quality of Metro’s service. The system was once his preferred option for traveling into the District for business meetings or Nationals games, but he is fed up with the chronic delays, the plodding pace of the Red Line and the stress of wondering whether he will arrive on time. Now, he drives.
“Sometimes I think they should just blow it up and start from scratch,” he said.
Despite his qualms, Moreno would be willing to consider a small sales-tax increase that went directly to the transit agency. He agrees that Metro needs more money for necessary repairs to improve safety and reliability. A sales tax is the best option, he said, because individuals would have more control over how much they would pay, cutting back on luxuries or recreational activities if necessary.
“Living in Montgomery County, we are constantly being forced to look at taxes based on social criteria, and I’m not into that stuff,” Moreno said. “I want it to be based on where and when I’m spending, more than on what I’m making or the house that I already spent a lot of money to buy.”
He would like to see the federal government kick in a little more money, too, for Metro’s year-to-year operations.
“I’m not a big-government guy,” Moreno said, “but this is a little different. This is the federal city.”
Support for the other funding options fluctuates across counties in Maryland. The idea of increasing the subsidies that Maryland, Virginia and the District pay garners support from 56 percent of Montgomery residents, but two-thirds of Prince George’s residents oppose it. Clear majorities of both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties reject fare increases as a way to solve Metro’s long-term funding problems, outpacing opposition in the rest of the state.
Prince George’s resident James Cooks opposes a regional sales tax, saying county residents are already overburdened by taxes.
The Fort Washington resident and federal government worker is a fan of Metro — he uses the system a few times a week. He has faith that the agency’s SafeTrack maintenance program will eventually lead to improved safety and reliability. And Metro deserves more money to support those efforts, he says. But he fears that a regional sales tax would disproportionately affect Prince George’s residents, who would end up paying more than their fair share while receiving less-than-stellar service.
“Without a doubt, people generally are overburdened with taxes right now,” said Cooks, who is in his 60s. “Unless you can devise a way that the tax burden would be shared equally between the jurisdictions, I don’t think it’s feasible. . . . If you look at the property tax situation in Maryland and in Prince George’s County, it’s clearly disproportionate.”
Opposition is strong — and shared — in Montgomery and Prince George’s to three other proposals: Seventy-one percent of Prince George’s and Montgomery residents do not want service cuts, and 69 percent oppose special property-tax districts near Metro stations.
Perhaps surprisingly, Marylanders who live beyond the District’s close-in suburbs also are hesitant to support some proposals that would mainly affect those who live in areas served by Metro. Among suburban and rural residents outside the D.C. and Baltimore areas, more than 6 in 10 disapprove of special property taxes on buildings near Metro stations, and these areas split evenly on higher fares. Fifty-seven percent oppose greater funding from Maryland, Virginia and the District; but by 50 percent to 41 percent, more support the creation of a regional sales tax to fund Metro.
The Post-U-Md. poll also finds that Metro’s image has plummeted sharply among Montgomery and Prince George’s residents since 2013, although they also are among the most optimistic that the system will improve in the coming years.
Sixty-eight percent of Prince George’s and Montgomery residents surveyed rated Metro’s rail system as excellent or good four years ago. Now, just 41 percent offer the same praise.
And during that period, the number who rated Metro most poorly increased significantly. In 2013, just 2 percent of Marylanders surveyed in the Washington suburbs rated the system “poor.” Today, 25 percent do.
The system’s most generous reviews come from those who are distanced from its day-to-day dysfunctions: Metro receives higher marks outside the D.C. suburbs, where 45 percent rate the system positively and 25 percent view it negatively, although 30 percent of those people in the survey volunteer that they have never used it or have no opinion.
The deterioration in goodwill toward Metro has been most dramatic for higher-income residents in Montgomery and Prince George’s. In 2013, 77 percent of D.C.-area Marylanders making $100,000 or more gave Metro positive ratings — now just 34 percent do. Ratings also fell among lower-income residents, but not as sharply. The share of those with household incomes under $50,000 giving Metro positive ratings dropped to 47 percent from 61 percent in 2013.
In line with Metro’s falling ratings, 41 percent of Marylanders in the D.C. area say the system has become worse in the past five years, while 20 percent say it has improved. About a third, 34 percent, say it has not changed.
Prince George’s residents are particularly negative on Metro, with 48 percent saying the system is worse, compared with 35 percent who say the same in Montgomery.
But residents of the D.C. suburbs also express the most optimism that Metro will improve, more so than Marylanders in the rest of the state. While fewer than 4 in 10 of those in the rest of Maryland expect the rail system to improve over the next five years (37 percent), half of those in the close-in suburbs think it will get better. At the same time, 43 percent of D.C.-area Marylanders expect the system to stay about the same or to get worse.
The Post-U-Md. poll was conducted March 16-19 among a random sample of 914 Maryland residents reached on cellular and landline phones. The survey was conducted in partnership with the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. Overall results carry a four-percentage-point margin of sampling error; the error margin is 6.5 percentage points among the sample of 317 residents in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.