An influential District business group said Tuesday that Metro’s problems have grown so acute that Congress should create a control board to run the transit agency on an emergency basis until a new governance structure is established.
The proposal by the Federal City Council, whose executive director is former D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, reflects intensifying concern about Metro’s financial difficulties and what the group sees as regional governments’ lack of urgency about the need for action.
The initiative appeared designed in part to pressure Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) to propose immediate creation of a control board in a bill that she is drafting to force revisions in the Metro Compact, the document that spells out how the agency is governed and funded.
Comstock has been working closely with the Federal City Council in preparing the legislation, which is expected to get a hearing on Capitol Hill because she is the local congressional delegation’s only Republican in the GOP-controlled Congress.
But officials in Comstock’s office said she has not decided whether to seek a control board right away or to first give the District, Maryland and Virginia time to make reforms, such as streamlining the board’s operations and improving labor practices. They also said it will be “some weeks” before her bill is ready, and she will seek hearings on Metro before submitting the legislation to help in drafting the measure.
The Federal City Council has been studying Metro’s problems for more than a year, and its views carry weight within the business community partly because of Williams’s reputation. The council’s website lists 125 area business and civic leaders who have endorsed its approach on Metro. The list includes executives from Verizon, Inova Health Systems, Hilton and the Washington Nationals as well as the presidents of the University of Maryland and George Washington University.
In a briefing for reporters about the council’s proposal, Deputy Executive Director Emeka Moneme said a five-member control board is necessary because there is no sense of ownership of the transit agency with the Metro board because of the fragmentation of leadership among the three jurisdictions and the federal government.
“Metro is effectively in the middle of a death spiral,” Moneme said. “We have a system that’s an orphan, effectively.”
The council proposes that Congress force the creation of a temporary five-member control board, which would take over from the 16-member Metro board. The funding structure would remain the same, which means most of the subsidies for Metro would continue to come from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
But the control board would be able to renegotiate labor agreements if necessary, end bad contracts, privatize some operations and give Metro management more flexibility in improving the system’s performance, Moneme said.
It would be patterned after the control board created by Congress in the 1990s, which rescued the District from a financial crisis.
One goal would be to increase federal, state and local governments’ trust in Metro, which would make them more amenable to approving the increased funding the transit system needs to maintain operations and make long-term capital investments.
Ultimately, the council favors replacing the current Metro board with a nine-member panel whose members would each have expertise in relevant fields, such as transit, finances or running large organizations. This panel would take over from the control board once the Metro Compact is rewritten.
The proposal represents a hardening of the council’s position from November, when it first outlined its plans for Metro. Then, it said Congress should threaten to name a control board to take over Metro by some deadline, perhaps within a year, if the District, Maryland and Virginia failed to adopt reforms in the interim.
But the group now says action is needed sooner because Metro’s budget situation has worsened and the region has shown its inability to respond quickly to the agency’s difficulties, demonstrated by the lengthy delay in setting up a federally required safety oversight body.
Metro’s financial situation is so severe that it needs to obtain $800 million in fresh loans and a long-delayed federal grant by September or risk insolvency, according to District officials.
“Given the urgency of the situation and the demonstrated lack of coordinated leadership (see the Metro Safety Commission), it is reasonable to assume that true reform will not take place without an interim control entity to govern Metro, safeguard its finances and get it back on track,” Williams said in a statement. “With so much at stake, we believe that immediate action is needed and we must thoughtfully pursue this option.”
Among Metro board members, reaction to the Federal City Council proposal was mixed.
Board Chairman Jack Evans said he backed the group in its efforts to solve the governance problem, but he added that structure is only one of three major issues facing the agency — and all should be solved concurrently.
“The governing structure is a problem, the labor contracts are a problem, but the biggest problem at Metro is we’re going to run out of money,” he said. “The board cannot fix this.”
Board member Michael Goldman, a Maryland representative, said a five-member panel is an attractive option, but he didn’t see the urgency for instituting an emergency control board.
Metro is making efforts to control its finances, he said. Past boards may have been crippled by jurisdictional meddling, he said, but the current one has managed to compromise — namely on late-night service cuts in the fall.
Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) was open to the council’s proposal but said it would be preferable to force the jurisdictions to improve the governance themselves.
“Obviously, a control board could work, but I think it’s suboptimal,” said Delaney, who recently proposed a bill to give Metro $750 million in federal funds over 10 years in return for governance and labor reforms.
“If you have a control board, you still have to transition back to the same multi-jurisdictional kind of monster that it’s become now with bad governance,” Delaney said.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said he was open to the idea of a control board but added that Metro shouldn’t simply be swapping out one form of governance for another.
“Does it bring in new revenue and new resources?” he asked. “I’m agnostic. I just need to see what the value proposition is. And it needs to be compelling if we’re going to overturn a carefully crafted compact that has allowed Maryland, Virginia and D.C. to build and run the system over the last 40 years.”
He also said it wouldn’t make sense to institute a control board unless it comes with money.
“If it comes with no additional resources, why do it?”
Connolly pointed to the success of the D.C. financial control board instituted in the 1990s.
“It did come with resources — that was the trade-off,” he said.