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

RICHMOND — Seated before a panel of skeptical lawmakers in a General Assembly hearing room, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld withstood a bipartisan barrage of objections to proposals to give his transit agency more money.

It was hardly a surprise when Del. T. Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg) questioned whether Metro was spending too much on overtime and pensions, and whether the union had too much power. The state GOP has historically been reluctant to pay for public transit, and Garrett's constituents live more than 150 miles from the nearest Metro station.

But Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax), a strong Metro backer, also raised concerns. He said the plan proposed by just-departed governor Terry McAuliffe (D) to supply Metro with an extra $150 million a year is unfair because Northern Virginia would bear the entire cost. Sickles and other Northern Virginia Democrats want the state to contribute, too.

Sickles also was uneasy about a stipulation that makes replacing Metro's 16-member board with a five-member "reform board" a condition for getting the extra money. Some of the jurisdictions that support Metro don't agree.

"We need to make sure somehow that [the reform board] does not become the issue that leads to failure with Maryland and the District," Sickles said after last week's hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation.

Historic rescue for Metro? Both Virginia and Maryland legislatures will study funding bills.

The concerns illustrate the numerous political obstacles that threaten legislation under consideration both here and at the Maryland General Assembly to provide long-term, reliable funding for Metro.

Legislators are at odds over how much money to provide, how to raise it and what conditions to impose. Lawmakers in both states also have the challenge of convincing colleagues from outside the Washington region to support funding for a system that doesn't directly benefit their constituents. And many Virginia Republicans want concessions from labor that Democrats in Maryland and the District could not endorse — especially in an election year when they're looking for unions' support.

"Concern keeps growing whether the region as a whole can get its act together and get dedicated funding for Metro," said G. Evan Pritchard, chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.

Despite the worries, however, many lawmakers said now is the time to make the push. Veteran politicians here and in Annapolis note it is the first time in memory that both political parties are taking seriously the need to provide financial support for the transit system. Top Virginia Republicans and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) have both said they are open to providing more state money to Metro, as long as certain conditions are met.

"There's a lot of positive momentum, and we just have to keep it going," said Maryland Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), sponsor of a Metro funding bill in Annapolis.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposes higher taxes in Northern Virginia to support Metro

The prospects have improved mainly because of recognition both that Metro has been underfunded and that it is critical to the economies of Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs. Those areas in turn are the economic engines for their respective states, and business groups are working overtime to educate lawmakers about the link.

In addition, the Metro campaign has benefited from the region's desire to enhance its chances of persuading Amazon to place its second headquarters and 50,000 jobs in the area. Amazon has said it wants a site close to good public transit, and its short­list of 20 potential locations includes three in the Washington region — Northern Virginia, Montgomery County and the District.

"It's just common sense that [Amazon] has put some urgency on it," Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. While Hogan was focused on Metro even before Montgomery made the short­list, Mayer said, the $2 billion in unspecified transportation improvements that the governor has promised to help lure Amazon "will have a lot to do with Metro."

This month's derailment of a Red Line train, which a preliminary investigation shows was probably caused by a broken rail, raised concern that Wiedefeld's work improving safety and reliability hasn't been as successful as hoped. But the incident also reinforced calls by Metro supporters for more funding to help the system catch up on decades of neglected maintenance.

The Metro funding campaign faces time pressure, especially in Virginia, given how many issues remain to be resolved. The famously short Richmond legislative session is scheduled to end March 10, and any bill outside the budget must be approved by at least one chamber by a deadline known as "crossover" on Feb. 13.

Maryland lawmakers expect to wait to see what Virginia does before they move on their Metro bills. Their session ends April 9.

Maryland Democrats to propose Metro funding bill, and Hogan’s initial response is positive

While Metro's supporters in Richmond are pressing hard for a permanent stream of funding for Metro, there are fallback bills that would provide extra money for the two-year life of the Virginia budget. That would buy time to agree on a long-term solution

The basic outlines of the debate are clear. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has backed McAuliffe's plan to raise about $150 million a year in additional funding for Metro, provided the reform board is appointed to improve the agency's governance.

In Maryland, Democratic lawmakers have submitted a bill to increase the state's contribution by $125 million a year, and without the requirement of a reform board. Each state's bill stipulates that it would provide the money only on condition that the other state and the District provide their fair shares.

Both states are already under pressure to raise their dollar commitment, at least somewhat. Metro supporters in the business community and elsewhere want Virginia, Maryland and the District to use an existing Metro formula to divide responsibility for adding $500 million a year in funding, which is the total that Wiedefeld says is necessary to preserve safety and reliability.

Under that formula, Virginia would pay $154 million, Maryland would pay $167 million and the District would pay $178 million.

The District is expected to go along with anything Virginia and Maryland manage to agree on. Ideally, the city would like a regionwide, uniform sales tax to support Metro, but both states have ruled that out.

"I'm willing to accommodate whatever Virginia and Maryland do — we're in," said Metro board chairman Jack Evans, who also is a Democratic D.C. Council member representing Ward 2, and chairman of the council's powerful committee on finance and revenue.

But differences abound inside Richmond and Annapolis, and between the two state capitals, on what a final deal would look like.

In Virginia, the first priority is to get the Democrats to agree among themselves on how to raise the money. The McAuliffe-Northam plan calls for raising $65 million through higher taxes on real estate sales, hotel stays and wholesale gasoline in Northern Virginia. An additional $85 million would be earmarked from funds that Northern Virginia already devotes to transportation.

Northern Virginia Democrats balked at the proposal, saying the state as a whole should supply some of the money. They want a revised bill in which the state would contribute some funding — $30 million, under one proposal.

The next step — a much harder one — would be to persuade Republicans, who narrowly control both the House and Senate, to go along.

Democrats, with allies in the business sector, are stressing that Northern Virginia needs Metro to remain prosperous and spin off tax revenue to support services in the rest of the state.

"It's hard to get [Republicans'] constituents to see that it's important to keep the economy healthy in Northern Virginia so it can fund their schools," Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) said. "It's hard for them to make that connection."

Nonetheless, Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said the state could help pay more for Metro as long as no statewide taxes were raised.

"There could be a potential for some general fund dollars," Jones said. He said it was too early to say what conditions might be attached to the money, except that some kind of change in the Metro board was necessary.

"A reform board is going to be at a minimum what's expected," Jones said, without specifying what it would entail.

Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) said Virginia could not insist on the five-member reform board, because Maryland has made clear it would not go along. Other governance reforms, such as agreeing to reduce the role of the eight alternate board members, may be considered.

In Maryland, Democrats have been heartened by Hogan's support for increased funding for Metro. But they are concerned by his insistence that the federal government raise its contribution by as much as the three local jurisdictions, a condition the Democrats view as unrealistic.

Hogan has offered to increase Maryland's funding by $125 million a year if Virginia, the District and the federal government do the same. He originally limited the offer to four years, but since then has said it could last as long as a decade.

The federal government gives Metro a subsidy of $150 million a year, under a program set to expire in the next fiscal year. Metro supporters in Congress say it will be a challenge to get the program extended, and prospects of increasing the subsidy are poor at best.

Mayer, the Hogan spokesman, said the federal government could match the increase if the three local jurisdictions act first.

"We really believe that if Virginia, D.C. and Maryland came together, we could get it done," Mayer said.