A congressional spending bill set to be voted on this week maintains full federal funding for Metro, a positive sign for the struggling transit agency as it seeks continued support from a Republican-controlled Congress, officials said Monday.
The bill authorizes $150 million in grant funding through the end of September, but it’s unclear whether Congress will approve funding for the remainder of the 10-year, $1.5 billion federal program — or renew it after the two remaining years of payments. Congressional Republicans have indicated they want to see significant changes from Metro, including labor concessions, before renewing it.
“The federal government will again fulfill its statutory obligation to Metro by meeting its $150 million obligation to provide a dollar-for-dollar match in combination with Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia for Metro’s capital budget,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said in a statement Monday. Much “of these resources are used for safety improvements and replacing old rail cars and other equipment,” she added.
The funding bill also includes $125 million in funding for Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line, which would connect riders to Metro but will be overseen by the Maryland Transit Administration. Purple Line funding was in jeopardy under President Trump’s proposed budget, which limited transit construction aid to projects that already have full funding grant agreements. Maryland officials were four days from signing such an agreement in August, but the federal government postponed the ceremony indefinitely Aug. 4 after a federal judge revoked the line’s environmental approval, which made it ineligible for federal funding.
Purple Line construction remains on hold as U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon reconsiders his ruling. The $125 million is contingent upon a federal agreement for the project being reached before the fiscal year ends in September, according to WTOP, which was the first to report the Purple Line deal.
Comstock is in the process of drafting a Metro reform bill that would overhaul the agency’s governance and labor practices. It is the more likely of two Metro overhaul proposals to pass the GOP-controlled Congress. The other, by Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), would give Metro an extra $750 million in federal funding over 10 years in exchange for changes in its governance structure and some labor concessions, but it does not eliminate binding arbitration, as some Republicans want to do.
Metro receives the $150 million annual allotment under the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), and the money is matched annually by the District, Maryland and Virginia. Democrats are pushing for PRIIA funding to be renewed — and increased — to meet the agency’s needs, but Republicans have said the transit agency must enact significant reforms.
Still, in a bipartisan letter in March, congressional leaders wrote to House Transportation subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and ranking Democrat Rep. David E. Price (N.C.), underscoring the need for continued full PRIIA funding this year. Among the signees were Comstock and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and five other members of the region’s congressional delegation.
“Led by General Manager Paul Wiedefeld, [Metro] is making progress on improving the system’s safety and returning it to a state of good repair,” the letter read. “However, reaching that goal will not be possible without continued investment by the federal government.”
Wiedefeld is pushing for dedicated funds from local governments to provide $500 million a year for equipment and maintenance and says Metro needs $15.5 billion over a decade to “remain safe and reliable.” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans is pushing for PRIIA funding to be renewed at double its current level to meet the transit system’s needs beyond the next decade.
Metro expressed its gratitude Monday that the federal funding would be continued.
“We are very grateful to our regional congressional delegation for once again ensuring this critical funding is included in the appropriations bill,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “This funding is the backbone of our capital budget and is used to address safety and reliability issues.”
Congressional leaders argued that the funds would bolster safety and reliability, with federal dollars going to the purchase of new rail cars, which Metro is using to make improvements that include revamping its fleet as it retires aging 1000-series models to meet a recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board and unloads its unreliable 4000-series cars.
“These authorized federal funds are essential to ensuring [Metro] is able to continue to make progress and purchase new rail cars with advanced crash-
resilient technology to replace the oldest cars in its fleet . . . and make other upgrades to its core infrastructure,” the letter reads.
Connolly, who drafted the letter to Diaz-Balart and Price, hailed the renewal of federal funding as a beacon of hope in the regional funding discussion surrounding Metro.
“I think it’s a hopeful sign moving forward that we’re making some headway in persuading people that Metro is a very important investment that needs to be sustained, and secondly I think it’s a very hopeful sign not only for the next two years of PRIIA, but our ability to try to get that extended for another 10 years,” he said.
Connolly said Wiedefeld has succeeded “in generating the confidence of Congress,” but added that regional leaders are “playing the long game . . . in trying to get Metro to its earlier luster, and that’s a very tough challenge.”
Evans called the continuation of funding a testament to Wiedefeld’s leadership.
“I have to say, I’m not sure we would have got it if it wasn’t for Paul and the confidence that he has been able to generate throughout the region and Congress. That’s a key thing,” he said.
Of Metro’s future federal funding prospects in light of the PRIIA decision, Evans said, “I feel pretty good about it.”