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Behind closed doors, region’s leaders clashed sharply over Metro funding

Contrary to the public display of goodwill for the media after a closed-door meeting last week, the region’s top three elected officials clashed sharply over Metro funding, with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) saying the transit agency would get no additional money from his state.

The lack of agreement among the leaders over how to meet Metro’s financial needs makes it increasingly unlikely the region will come up with the additional money that General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld says is necessary by next July to keep the system safe and reliable. The only other options, Wiedefeld told the meeting, are significant fare increases and service cuts beyond those customers have already experienced.

The summit discussion, according to people who attended or were briefed on it, was contentious and alarming to Metro’s supporters. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) was sufficiently concerned that he instructed the several dozen officials and staff attending that no one leak what was said to the media. If Hogan’s comments and other disagreements became public, McAuliffe warned, there would be no hope Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature would support Metro with additional money as he desires.

At one point, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) warned Hogan that without additional money, Metro would have to reduce spending by an amount equal to the cost of running an entire Metro line. Hogan suggested a line might be privatized, officials said.

Hogan said Maryland could not afford to give Metro more money and flatly ruled out asking the legislature or counties to raise taxes to do so.

Wiedefeld was described as visibly disturbed by Hogan’s overall comments and the ensuing debate.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer declined to comment on what was said at the meeting, held Monday, and warned that such leaks hurt chances of having future regional summits.

McAuliffe, Hogan, Bowser agree with LaHood that Metro board should shrink.

“It was a private meeting. It was a real discussion. It wasn’t a made-for-TV news conference moment, which is the kind of conversations elected officials need to be having,” Mayer said. “The fact that the details have been leaked publicly make it very clear that the chances of a productive meeting ever happening again are about zero.”

Spokesmen for McAuliffe and Bowser also expressed regret and surprise that details had become public.

“It was a private meeting, and it would be unfortunate if others who were party to it are discussing its details,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said.

Given the leaders’ differences, it’s difficult to see how the region can meet its deadline to agree on a long-term funding plan for Metro to present to the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies when they meet in January. That means Metro probably will have to wait until the 2019 legislative sessions or later for such a plan.

After the meeting, Wiedefeld asked Metro Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike to study the possible effect on service if no additional funding is received. He has said Metro needs an additional $500 million a year in dedicated funding for new equipment and maintenance.

The funding dispute overshadowed the recommendation by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood to the summit to temporarily shrink the Metro board from 16 members to five to implement an emergency reform plan.

Virginia Gov. McAuliffe taps Ray LaHood to head panel to study Metro.

McAuliffe, Hogan and Bowser said they liked the idea in principle, but it faces legal obstacles and resistance from some current board members.

LaHood was recruited by McAuliffe to lead a panel drafting a plan for restructuring and funding Metro.

Before the summit, Bowser and McAuliffe had hoped the meeting would narrow differences over funding at a critical time. Bowser favors quick adoption of a regionwide dedicated sales tax to fund Metro, while McAuliffe supports a new tax or other dedicated funding once Metro has shown improvement in governance, safety and reliability.

But Hogan spoiled his counterparts’ expectations. He has previously opposed giving more money to Metro but spoke so forcefully on Monday that an official who received briefings about the session likened the effect to “throwing a bomb into the room.”

Another official, who was present, said Hogan “was very adamant that he was not going to use his political capital for Metro.”

Like others interviewed for this story, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the summit discussions were private.

New dispute over cost of fixing Metro pits District against Virginia, Maryland.

Hogan told the group only 2 percent of Maryland residents ride Metro, but the agency eats up 11 percent of the state’s capital budget for transportation.

Hogan also cast doubt on the idea that Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — the Maryland suburbs served by Metro — would raise taxes on their own to support the transit system. If referendums were held in the two counties, Hogan told the summit, residents would vote 70 percent to 30 percent against a new levy.

It's unclear where Hogan got the figures he cited. His forecast is at odds with a Washington Post -University of Maryland poll in March. The poll found 55 percent of Montgomery residents and 44 percent in Prince George's support a regional sales tax for Metro, although differences were within the survey's margin of sampling error.

However, both counties’ top elected officials — who were not at the summit but were questioned about the issue — discouraged expectations their jurisdictions would agree to provide more money for Metro.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said he opposes raising taxes just in his county and Montgomery for Metro. He said it’s the governor’s job to find state revenue for the agency.

“The leadership has to come from the governor’s office,” Baker said. “The Metro system is not about just those two jurisdictions. It’s about creating job opportunities for the entire state.”

Baker, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Hogan next year, said as governor, he would support increasing state funding for Metro.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), a longtime supporter of higher taxes for Metro, predicted no agreement would be reached in Maryland until after the 2018 election. The entire state legislature, as well as the governorship, will be on the ballot.

“People do not want to take on this issue of [Metro] funding head-on at least until after the election in 2018,” Leggett said.

Maryland’s lack of support for increased Metro funding is an ominous sign for the transit agency’s supporters. They have generally assumed their biggest hurdle would be Virginia, where the GOP-dominated legislature is averse to raising taxes and critical of Metro’s governance, labor costs and efficiency.

“Everybody thinks Virginia is the hardest nut to crack, but Maryland has its obstacles as well,” said an official who was at the summit.

Hogan’s position springs from long-standing convictions and political considerations. A fiscal conservative, he campaigned in 2014 against higher taxes and in favor of shifting resources from transit to roads. His political base is in rural and outer suburban counties that are not directly served by rail transit.

In a major reversal, Hogan agreed in 2015 to support building the light-rail Purple Line linking Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Now, he points to that project as evidence he is not anti-transit. He says he opposes more money for Metro because the transit system already gets more than its fair share from the state.

Hogan told the summit the federal government should contribute more for Metro. McAuliffe and Bowser readily endorsed that idea but warned they could not depend on it.

The Trump administration has proposed reducing federal spending on transit. It isn’t clear the White House or Congress will support extending the $150 million federal subsidy Metro receives each year for capital expenses as part of a program set to expire in 2018.

LaHood told the group its only hope for increasing federal support for the transit agency is to get the region’s congressional delegation to push it through Congress.

Hogan tried to lighten the mood by joking that McAuliffe — who is widely thought to have presidential ambitions — would increase Metro funding when he wins another office.

At the end of the summit, before stepping out to address the media, the three leaders agreed to avoid talking publicly about their disagreements. Instead, they focused on their common view that the Metro board needs restructuring, and they praised the importance of regional cooperation.

“We had a great discussion,” McAuliffe told the media. “What all three of us have always agreed on, when we all work together, there’s not a region in the globe that can compete with the national capital region.”