The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.-area Democrats offer federal Metro bill to counter that of GOP’s Rep. Comstock

The Red Line Metro at Gallery Place station in the District. Democratic House members from the area filed a Metro funding bill that would double the federal subsidy to the transit agency. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

A partisan split in the Washington area's congressional delegation over how to increase federal funding for Metro has raised concerns that the lack of unity will lead Congress to balk at giving the transit system critically needed support.

The division emerged Tuesday when Democratic House members from the area filed a Metro funding bill that would double the federal subsidy to the transit agency and be more friendly to its unions than legislation proposed by Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.).

The House bill, a copy of which was obtained in advance by The Washington Post, would raise the federal contribution to the transit agency from $150 million a year to $300 million a year for 10 years. Comstock's bill would increase it by 50 percent, to $225 million annually.

The Democrats' legislation also would provide a federal subsidy for Metro's operating costs. That would be a significant change. The grants Metro receives — such as other direct federal subsidies for public transit — pay only for capital investments.

In perhaps the most important difference from Comstock's bill, the Democrats' legislation would not require the creation of a five-member reform board with power to revise existing union contracts and take other steps to restrain labor costs.

Instead, it addresses concerns about Metro's performance by requiring that the agency strengthen its Office of the Inspector General and meet targets for safety, reliability and cost-efficiency as conditions for receiving the extra money.

"The other bill almost reads punitive when it comes to labor unions and the workforce," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), the lead sponsor of the Democratic legislation. "We don't tell Metro they have to vitiate existing labor contracts," or weaken pension guarantees or limit overtime, as Comstock's bill does, he said.

Rep. Comstock’s bill would give Metro more federal money in exchange for reform board and controls on labor costs

Connolly said his bill has support throughout the Washington region. Co-sponsors, all Democrats, include Reps. Anthony G. Brown, Steny H. Hoyer, Jamie Raskin and John Sarbanes, all of Maryland; Rep. Don Beyer (Va.); and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

But Comstock's bill, which she filed in December, has the advantage of being sponsored by a member of the party that controls both the House and the Senate. Her bill, which was drafted in consultation with regional business leaders, including some Democrats, also reflects their support for replacing the 16-member Metro board with a reform board designed to improve the agency's governance.

Comstock defended her bill in a statement Tuesday and faulted the Democrats' legislation for not requiring specific management reforms on pensions and overtime supported by Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.

"Throwing billions more at Metro without defined reforms is a dead-on-arrival strategy," Comstock said. "It's unfortunate that in the nine years it took Gerry Connolly to write an eight-page bill, he failed to include any of the substantial management, financial or pension reforms advocated on a bipartisan basis by numerous transportation experts and Metro advocates who have been working for years to seriously improve and reform the system."

The differences between the parties' bills aggravated concerns among Metro supporters that Congress will be reluctant to endorse a package that lacks unified support from the region.

"What's so discouraging about this is, it really undercuts the bipartisan necessity of getting a federal funding source for Metro," said Gus Bauman, a former chairman of the Maryland Blue Ribbon Transportation Funding Commission. "To have an all-Democratic bill and an all-Republican one does no one any good."

The Democrats' decision to take on Comstock appears aimed in part at hurting her chances of positioning herself as an effective champion of Metro when she seeks reelection in November. Comstock, whose Northern Virginia district has been trending Democratic, is viewed as vulnerable.

"I don't know their true motivations, but they must be intensely aware that giving a major victory on Metro funding to Barbara Comstock would be an enormous benefit to her reelection chances this year," said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

MetroNow, a coalition of leading business groups and nonprofit organizations, issued a statement applauding Connolly's leadership, but warned that the region's politicians need to work together on Metro.

"This is a critical time when our leaders must collaborate instead of compete against one another," the group said.

Despite differences, lawmakers in Richmond and Annapolis make push for Metro funding

While the region's federal representatives trade jabs, there have been signs recently of a narrowing of partisan differences in Maryland and Virginia, where state lawmakers are considering bills to provide Metro with dedicated funding.

Numerous political obstacles remain to the legislation in both states, but many Metro supporters and political veterans say there is unprecedented momentum for change. The federal bickering adds another hurdle.

The Democrats' position partly reflects their desire to represent the interests of labor, an important part of their political base.

Brown noted that his congressional district, which includes portions of Prince George's County, is home to more Metro workers than any other, and said "they deserve a voice" in the debate about the agency.

"It's mistaken to believe that Metro's problems are excessive labor costs," Brown said. "I don't think you need to mess around with their pensions and arbitration, or somehow blow up or reform the board, and think that's going to solve it."

Despite differences, lawmakers in Richmond and Annapolis make push for Metro funding

The Connolly and Comstock bills have one thing in common: They call for extending and increasing a $150 million annual federal subsidy for Metro that is scheduled to expire after the fiscal year ending in 2019.

Connolly's bill would do so in two steps.

First, it would extend the program, part of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), for 10 years and increase the subsidy to $200 million a year. Of that, $150 million would continue to be for capital investment. The District, Maryland and Virginia would continue making a matching contribution totaling $150 million.

The additional $50 million in the Connolly bill would go to operations. Of the latter, $10 million would be for Metro's inspector general. This money would not require a local match.

Obtaining federal money for operating expenses — such as wages, fuel and electricity — would be a breakthrough long sought by many Metro supporters. They have complained for years that the District, Maryland and Virginia pay for all of Metro's operating subsidies even though the federal government depends on the system to get its workers in the Washington area to their jobs.

"I have always believed that the federal government gets a free ride," Connolly said. "The largest single user of Metro every day is the federal government."

The condition for extending and increasing PRIIA money would be to strengthen the Office of the Inspector General by giving it new powers, including independent budget, procurement and hiring authority. Congress and others have pressed for a more robust IG to hold Metro accountable.

The second part of the funding plan in Connolly's bill would give Metro an additional $100 million a year in grants for capital investment for 20 years. These federal grants also would have to be matched by a total of $100 million annually contributed by the three jurisdictions.

2 U.S. lawmakers want to fix Metro by rewriting its governing charter

For the first five years, the additional money would be subject to the condition of Metro meeting performance benchmarks set by the U.S. transportation secretary together with the District, Maryland and Virginia.

The secretary would grant the money each year only after certifying that Metro was "making progress toward goals and metrics for system performance established by the Secretary in collaboration with the signatories to the [Metro] Compact on safety, reliability and operations costs as measured by vehicle revenue miles," the bill says.

For the remaining 15 years, the $100 million a year in additional grants would be conditioned on continued progress toward the goals and metrics, plus the establishment of a dedicated funding source by the District, Maryland and Virginia of at least $300 million a year.