The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to salvage Metro? Rewrite the compact, says influential D.C. business group

Mayor Anthony Williams in 2004. Williams leads the the Federal City Council, which has a a proposal to fix Metro: Blow up its founding document and start over. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

Almost everybody agrees Metro’s governance structure and finances are broken. But almost nobody agrees about the best way to fix them.

Metro Chairman Jack Evans favors a federal board to take over Metro. Other top officials said that would be hoisting a white flag of surrender.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wants a regionwide sales tax to pay the bills. Maryland and Virginia say “wait” or “no way.”

Now the Federal City Council, an influential business and civic group led by former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, has joined the debate with a plan to rally the region around a proposal to start all over again. The best way to fix the troubled transit agency is to blow it up, the council says.

In an opinion article for Sunday's Washington Post, the council urges a rewriting of the Metro compact, or founding document. The amendments would shrink and professionalize Metro's board of directors, weaken union protections and require area governments to provide a reliable stream of funds.

“Without making extreme changes, we will perpetuate the degradation of the system, its safety and its benefit to the region,” the article says. It was signed by two top area business executives, Robert J. Flanagan and W. Edward Walter. Flanagan is chairman of the Federal City Council, and Walter is its vice chairman.

Federal takeover of Metro? Board chairman’s proposal triggers debate but has some support.

The proposal, issued after more than a year of study, serves as a guide to the structural problems that have contributed to Metro’s troubles with safety, reliability, lack of maintenance and underinvestment.

Previous studies also have identified these shortcomings, such as a lack of a dedicated tax or other funding source, and a board of directors struggling with split loyalties to Metro and to the jurisdictions that appointed them to the board.

This reform effort may succeed where others have failed, because the council and Williams, its executive director, enjoy high regard throughout the region. Williams said in an interview that the council plans to solicit support from the region’s employers, nonprofit organizations, transit advocates and others.

“We’re out to build a coalition of the willing,” Williams said. “We hope and believe that by the time we finish, we’ll represent a consensus of the broad leadership across the DMV,” he said, using the initials for the District, Maryland and Virginia.

But the initiative risks running aground on the same political shoals that sank earlier reform efforts.

In particular, union-friendly politicians in the District and Maryland are likely to resist the council’s proposal to drop the requirement that disputes over labor contracts be settled through binding arbitration.

Such arbitration was put in the compact originally in exchange for unions’ promise not to stage strikes. Critics say it has effectively guaranteed that labor costs rise with each round of negotiations.

Separately, Republican state legislators in Virginia have vowed to oppose tax increases that might be needed to give Metro a dedicated source of revenue. Even Fairfax County’s top Democrat, Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, said the failure of this month’s referendum on levying a meals tax in Fairfax was a strong sign that county voters also would reject higher taxes to fund Metro.

Region’s leaders split over a 1-cent regional sales tax to pay for Metro.

Finally, there’s the perennial challenge of getting all four jurisdictions responsible for Metro — the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government — to agree on anything big. Divisions among their representatives on the Metro board have repeatedly stymied progress there.

The Federal City Council has an unusual idea for breaking that impasse. It says the federal government ought to threaten to take over Metro temporarily by some specified date, perhaps in 12 months, if the city and the two states do not make the necessary reforms on their own.

The prospect of a takeover serves as "a sword or a heavy hand to come in and take the corrective action that you otherwise can't," Williams said. "If you can't come to a desired result, then you've got this kind of undesired alternative."

But it isn’t clear that Congress or the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump would go along. Area officials said they have no idea what attitude Trump would have toward Metro, or whether Congress would be willing to get involved.

Trump has proposed a massive increase in spending on infrastructure, but much of the rest of the GOP would prefer to invest in roads rather than transit.

Spokesmen for Bowser, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said they had not seen the full proposal from the Federal City Council and could not comment. But Bowser’s office said the mayor would support revising the compact under certain conditions.

“Opening the compact is worth it as long as negotiations are focused on safety, reliability, adding the federal government as a financial partner, and securing a regional, dedicated funding source,” said Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio.

Metro sank into crisis despite decades of warnings.

Evans, the Metro chairman, was enthusiastic that Williams, who usually prefers to work behind the scenes, was becoming publicly involved. He cited Williams’s experience in helping to rescue the District from its budget crisis in the 1990s.

“Tony is very well respected,” said Evans, who also is a Democratic member of the D.C. Council, representing Ward 2. “He was an architect of restructuring of the District’s finances and governance. He would be a good ally in redoing the governance structure and financial structure of Metro.”

The council echoed Evans’s desire, expressed earlier, to reduce the number of Metro directors from 16 to make it easier to reach consensus. It also endorsed his proposal to fill the board with individuals who have professional experience in transportation or management, and who do not have divided responsibilities.

“There is a clear conflict between the roles of representing the jurisdiction and representing the [transit] authority — it’s real,” said Emeka Moneme, the council’s deputy executive director. Moneme, a former District transportation director and Metro board member, oversees the council’s work on transit and infrastructure.

Another Metro board member, Jim Corcoran, who also heads the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, predicted that the proposal would get support from the region’s business leaders.

“With a clear-cut and balanced presentation, I think the business community could certainly support changing the compact,” Corcoran said.

A wary note was struck by Roger Berliner, chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. He has been helping to lead an effort to obtain regionwide agreement on a plan for dedicated funding to be submitted to the Maryland and Virginia legislatures in early 2018.

In safety and reliability, Metro ranks in middle of pack of nation’s big systems.

Berliner, who also is a Democratic member of the Montgomery County Council, representing Potomac-Bethesda, was concerned that a debate over the compact would distract attention from the push for reliable revenue.

“To the extent that other issues are put on the table, it makes obtaining dedicated funding dicier,” Berliner said.

Williams said it was necessary to correct Metro’s unwieldy governance structure to assure area jurisdictions that taxpayer funds would be well spent. Once the region agreed to commit more money, he said, the Republican-controlled Congress might be persuaded to contribute funds as well.

He said that the proposal to weaken labor protections would not lead to massive job reductions but that unions needed to make concessions.

“We’re not talking about firing a lot of people, but we do think that everybody’s got to contribute,” he said.

Asked why he thought the Federal City Council’s initiative could succeed where previous reform efforts have failed, Williams shrugged and said: “It’s a big, heavy lift, but we do heavy lift here. That’s what we do.”