The Trump administration plans to omit a critical $150 million Metro grant from its upcoming budget, contending the 10-year capital program has ended despite the transit agency's expectation that there is one installment remaining in the $1.5 billion fund, according to the office of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).
Federal officials argue the decade-long program in the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) expired with the fiscal year that began in July 2017, even though that interpretation leaves Metro with $150 million less than pledged under the bill, Warner's office said.
The money is used to purchase new rail cars, pay for track upgrades and replace aging equipment.
If confirmed, the administration's position would reinforce concerns that the Trump administration is hostile to funding mass transit despite its proclaimed interest in investing in infrastructure. In its budget proposal last year, the White House called for slashing Transportation Department spending and limiting aid for transit construction to projects that already had full funding grant agreements.
The administration's position appears to seize on a technicality in the wording of the bill, which says the funds are authorized "over 10 fiscal years beginning in fiscal year 2009, or until expended."
Because Metro didn't receive its first PRIIA allotment until the 2010 fiscal year, Democrats — focused on the "until expended" clause — say there is one year of funding left. But the administration, they say, contends that the funds expired after fiscal year 2018, the 10th year of the authorization. The revelation complicates Metro's financial picture at a time when the agency is pushing for the federal grant program to be renewed — and even bolstered — to meet its lofty capital needs.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) introduced a bill in December that would issue a new 10-year federal authorization totaling $225 million a year. A competing bill from Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) would double the existing 10-year grant to $300 million and also include a federal subsidy for operating costs.
Comstock said she was pushing the administration to grant Metro the 10th installment of the original $1.5 billion program, and had discussed it with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the transportation subcommittee on Appropriations.
"We are reaching out to [the] White House and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] Director [Mick] Mulvaney to press for the full 10-year commitment as well as talking with our own leadership," Comstock said. "We are committed to getting this funding while we also push for fundamental reforms at Metro."
Metro has a capital budget of $1.3 billion for the coming fiscal year, including $150 million in anticipated PRIIA funding. The agency said last year it has $25 billion in unfunded capital needs. The proposed Metro budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 says the agency expects PRIIA to expire "after FY 2020."
The region's Senate delegation wrote to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao this week urging the continuation of the PRIIA funds.
"In FY 2010, the federal government began fulfilling their commitment and have followed through in subsequent years to provide funding for nine straight years," said the letter from Warner and Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
"FY 2019 would represent the tenth and final year of that ten-year commitment," the letter said. "Without providing the federal portion next year, this delicate funding partnership would unravel, leaving a significant shortfall in [Metro's] capital budget."
In budget talking points issued to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure last spring, which were obtained by The Washington Post, the Federal Transit Administration laid out its argument for ending the PRIIA program, including:
●"PRIIA authorizes appropriations for grants to [Metro] for a total of $1.5 billion over a 10 fiscal year period beginning in FY 2009," FTA said. "Thus, FY18 is the final year of the PRIIA funding."
"[Metro] will not be eligible to receive PRIIA funds in FY 2019 unless Congress acts to extend the length of the authorization."
As an alternative to issuing the full $1.5 billion, the talking points said, Congress could have allotted $300 million for the fiscal year that ended last July. But the budget provided the usual $150 million.
"Or Congress could extend the authorization for one more year to FY19 and appropriate another $150M in that year to total $1.5B," the talking points said.
Neither Chao nor the FTA responded to emails seeking clarity on the administration's position. The FTA directed a reporter to the White House budget office, which declined to comment, saying the budget for fiscal 2019 will be released in coming weeks.
A Metro spokeswoman said the agency "has not been advised" that the Transportation Department was asserting that PRIIA has expired. The agency said in a statement it anticipates receiving the pledged amount of funding.
"We expect to receive the $1.5 billion authorized in the PRIIA legislation and we are working with our delegation to ensure that outcome," Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
Former Northern Virginia Republican congressman Tom Davis, who was architect of the legislation that created the federal subsidy for Metro, said the language in the law was sufficiently ambiguous that the Transportation Department may have discretion to say the authorization has expired.
But Davis emphasized that when the bill was written, it was universally understood that the money was to flow for 10 years and total $1.5 billion.
"The clear intent by all concerned was that they get 10 years of funding," said Davis, who advised Metro in the past as a managing director at Deloitte and now does so on a volunteer basis. He also pointed out that Congress could appropriate the money even without an authorization.
"The appropriators have the ability to appropriate money after authorizations have run out. It's not an ironclad rule [to have an authorization]," Davis said.
Metro supporters pointed to two Congressional Budget Office reports to support their view that one more grant of $150 million was authorized.
First, the PRIIA funds for Metro were not identified as lapsing in a CBO report issued last month that listed authorizations expiring in fiscal year 2018.
Second, a CBO estimate prepared for the original bill assumed that the conditions placed on the money would mean that the funding would start in fiscal year 2010 and continue for 10 years from that point.
"CBO assumes that the authorized amount [of $1.5 billion] will be appropriated in equal installments over a 10-year period, beginning in 2010," the CBO document said.
Chao appointed two federal representatives, Steve McMillin and Dave Horner, to Metro's governing board last summer. Among their responsibilities was assessing whether the grant program should be renewed once it expired. But the program was widely expected to continue through fiscal year 2019.
As part of the program, the District, Maryland and Virginia match the funding provided by the federal government through jurisdictional subsidies to the agency.
The senators argue that the federal government depends on Metro and that the administration's recalcitrance is directly at odds with the pro-infrastructure message Trump issued in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
"We all agree on the need for [Metro] to demonstrate major improvement in safety, reliability, and customer service and we plan to continue to push for additional oversight and meaningful reform," they wrote in their letter. "The federal government relies on Metro. Many Metrorail stations were built at the request of the federal government, and more than one-third of all stations are located on or near federal facilities.
The senators urged Trump to include the funding in his soon-to-be-released $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.
If Metro's "needs are not addressed soon, costs will simply continue to escalate," the senators said. "For these reasons, we strongly urge that you consider [Metro's] needs as you finalize the President's proposal that will help make desperately needed repairs to our nation's infrastructure."