Why can’t the Washington region agree on how to fix Metro? Anyone who pays attention knows a primary reason is the four-way division of responsibility among the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government.
But there’s another explanation that’s less well known: the political weakness of the region’s business community. The area’s corporate leadership has said for decades that Metro needs reforms such as a restructured board and dedicated funding, but the appeals have gone nowhere.
The region’s private sector lacks clout because of internal divisions and lack of engagement from some of the area’s biggest corporations. The area’s largest employer, the federal government, sits on the sidelines rather than plunge into local civic leadership.
Now, a recently formed, high-powered business group wants to enter the Metro debate, and its members may have enough resources, prestige and influence to succeed where others failed — and not just with Metro.
The new player is the Greater Washington Partnership, an alliance of chief executives of many of the largest employers in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Its board includes leaders of Dominion Energy, Northrop Grumman, Under Armour, the Carlyle Group, Exelon, Monumental Sports and Entertainment and Capital One.
The partnership plans to wade into the debate over Metro in coming months in hopes of helping to broker an elusive regional consensus on governance and funding. Its 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status means it can’t lobby, but it can pursue what it calls “advocacy,” and intends to do so.
"Bold action is required to address the immediate and long-term structural challenges that have plagued the [Metro] system," the group said in a report issued Thursday on transportation in the region. "Critical decisions about investment and operations have been deferred or diluted for years."
The timing is good. Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood is about to release a report with his recommendations on what to do about Metro. He is expected to lay the groundwork for legislation on the transit system to be taken up by the Maryland and Virginia legislatures in January.
But Metro’s problems, while critical, are only a small part of the partnership’s plans. The 30-page report outlines a long-term vision to improve the entire transportation network in the “super region” stretching from Baltimore to Richmond. It urges more funding, more regional cooperation and more innovation.
The report makes pointed warnings about the risk of inaction on transportation. According to current projections, it says, traffic delays in the “super region” will increase by 50 percent by 2040.
The region must find a whopping $176 billion in new funds to pay for transportation in the next 23 years, on top of the $308 billion already planned, according to the report.
That works out to a need for more than $7 billion a year — which, coincidentally, is exactly what the report estimates as the cost to the region from congestion in “wasted time, money and productivity.”
The region also risks losing talented young workers because of traffic.
“Two-thirds of millennials in the Washington area say they would consider moving out of the region, citing ‘horrendous traffic’ as a major factor,” it says.
A regional approach is necessary partly because so many people cross state or county boundaries on their daily commutes. The number of people commuting daily from the Baltimore area to the Washington area is 155,000 — with nearly 80,000 commuting the other way.
“In a truly connected region, a patient in Alexandria could easily participate in a research study at Johns Hopkins; a college student in Richmond could take an internship with the federal government in D.C.; and a military family could live together in Washington while one spouse works at Quantico and the other at Fort Meade,” the report says.
As with Metro, the report says progress is blocked by the excessive number of governing jurisdictions that share responsibility for regional transportation.
“More than 75 entities — public and private — play a significant decision-making or operational role in delivering mobility options and services for our region,” the report says.
The report is only an initial step toward developing a regional plan, as its title makes clear: “Advancing Our Region: Preface to a Blueprint for Regional Mobility.”
The partnership is issuing a “Public Request for Information” to governments and private groups to get involved. It plans roundtables, workshops and other public events to collect ideas.
It plans to move quickly on Metro, because important decisions are foreseen in the next few months. Metro has warned it needs substantial additional funding by the start of its next fiscal year in July.
“We’re going to have to participate in the public conversation [about Metro],” said Jason Miller, a former top economist in the Obama White House who is now the partnership’s chief executive.
“Some of the discussion will have to happen before July 2018. We won’t and can’t stay quiet and in the background on all things Metro for the next six to nine months,” he said.
Miller said the big corporations in the partnership see transportation as a high priority.
“This [transportation] is a foundational issue for the CEOs who created the partnership,” Miller said. “Focusing on the short list of issues that matter is the reason that they came together to create the partnership, and transportation no doubt is the one that animates every single one of them.”
If the chief executives on the group’s board follow through, it could move the needle in a way that the region hasn’t seen before.
The partnership enjoys some advantages over business groups that have been active for years on Metro issues, such as the Greater Washington Board of Trade and Federal City Council.
All of its 21 members are large employers. Together, they employ 175,000 people in the region.
Also, by including Baltimore and Richmond, the partnership’s reach extends to politically influential areas beyond the Washington suburbs. That could help Metro win more support in the state legislatures in Maryland and Virginia.
The partnership is modeled, in part, on similar groups of large employers that have helped build support for regional solutions on transportation and other issues in Houston, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio.
It comprises the core group of businesses that led the Washington region’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics. That effort foundered, but perhaps the group can succeed in a less glamorous but arguably more critical effort closer to home.